31 January 2008

More on Campolo, Darwin, and Hitler

At about the same time that I posted on Tony Campolo's flawed piece on Darwin and racism, Christopher Heard posted a vastly better analysis – "Campolo gets Darwin all wrong" – on Higgaion. Required reading. There may be a quiz.

30 January 2008

The real danger in anti-Darwinism is...

Here at Calvin we used to have a super-cool club called SNUH, which sought to discuss and enjoy The Simpsons. I was a guest speaker there twice, but their biggest catch by far was Prof. Tony Campolo, who came to Calvin three years ago, specifically in response to an invitation from the wacky SNUH. I generally like Tony Campolo, mostly because he's good at uncoupling evangelical Christian faith (yay) from American evangelical politics (ick).

But Campolo really stepped in it a week and a half ago, when he put his name on a screed in the Philadelphia Inquirer called "The real danger in Darwin is not evolution, but racism." It's a weird little rant, riddled with red herrings. For example, referring to those (like me) who oppose the teaching of "the intelligent design theory of creation" in public schools, Campolo writes:

Arguing for what they believe is a nonprejudicial science, they contend that children in public schools should be taught Darwin's explanation of how the human race evolved, which they claim is value-free and depends solely on scientific evidence.
Huh? "Value-free?" Who says that? It's a pretty simplistic and unsophisticated view, and while I'm sure quote miners can dig up examples of commentators who say stuff like that, I'm very suspicious of Campolo here. It's not just that he's wrong; his claims about Darwin's racism – and Darwin's alleged influence on (of course) the Nazis – are very nicely dispatched in a piece by Joshua Rosenau at Thoughts from Kansas. Rosenau shows just how wrong Campolo is on the facts, and on the moral implications of common descent. (And readers of the Inquirer did some good work, too.)

But there's something else I don't like about the piece. It seems to be crafted as an argument in a case for "the intelligent design theory of creation." Campolo chides young-earth literalists, but links ID to the "suggestion" that "the evolutionary development of life was not the result of natural selection, as Charles Darwin suggested, but was somehow given purposeful direction and, by implication, was guided by God." That's a pretty soft view of ID, and though Campolo has expressed reservations about the ID program elsewhere, it looks to me like he's bought some of its most intellectually damaging claims.

Anyway, check out the Campolo piece, and don't miss Rosenau's excellent work at Thoughts from Kansas. He cites another hero of mine, Mark Noll. Superb.

24 January 2008

Weekly Sampler 3

Junk DNA is still a-happening. Ryan Gregory's blog Genomicron is the place to learn about it. He's especially adept at driving trucks through the gaps in ID claims about non-coding DNA. My gestating posts on the subject [sigh] will focus more on Reasons To Believe. Watch for a quote from Obi-Wan!

So here are some things I've been munching on this week.

1. I'm not that crazy about Cell Press, at least since they sold out to Elsevier, but they do give some stuff away (e.g. a "Featured Article" is free in each issue), and Neuron is still the best neuro journal. Now they're providing a very nice free resource called Evaluating Techniques in Biomedical Research. Some of the chapters cover techniques that I use regularly in my own research (fluorescence microscopy, RNA interference) and some cover procedures I intend to learn soon (FRET). And there's a chapter on biostatistics, which no one seems to know anything about.

2. So how exactly does one go about discussing the misuse of science by Christians, especially when the discussion is among Christians? I've been worrying about this lately, and it will soon be clear why. If you're similarly nervous (and/or frustrated) about this, check out the healthy discussion of this issue on the ASA listserv, looking for the thread called "Sins of pseudoscience" (and others).

3. My colleague Dan Harlow (Calvin College Religion Department) has an important new paper in the new issue (Winter 2008) of Christian Scholar's Review, called "Creation According to Genesis: Literary Genre, Cultural Context, Theological Truth." It's based on a paper he gave in the Origins Symposium here at Calvin in 2006, where I met Todd Wood, and it should be worth your trouble to get a copy. (Contact me if you need a hand.)

4. Want your genome sequenced? Your dog's genome? The genome of whatever it is that's growing on the leftover Thai food in the back of the fridge? The company is Helicos Biosciences and they're developing technology that will sequence a genome in 10 days for $1000. Hey...I have four kids...I'll get at least that much from Uncle Sam in a few months...

5. Well, speaking of peer review...Answers in Genesis has started a new peer-reviewed online journal. The news blurb in Nature has a good quote from Keith Miller. I'll be watching.

6. Tara Smith's blog Aetiology is amazing. Current series: "Did Yersinia pestis really cause Black Plague?" Shelley Batts at Retrospectacle also celebrated a "Plague week." Did I miss something on the calendar?

7. Michael Behe's case in The Edge of Evolution relies heavily on estimates of mutation rates. Last August an article in Science reported that adaptive (i.e., beneficial) mutation rates in bacteria have been spectacularly underestimated. The Science paper explains why this is so, providing both a vastly different estimate of the adaptive mutation rate and an explanation for why previous studies got it wrong. You'd think that Behe would provide a thorough response. Silly you!

8. I note that Alvin Plantinga was the 2007 speaker in this series. I'll listen and comment sometime; anyone else?

23 January 2008

Tangled Bank here in two weeks

I don't know if Les Misérables will ever come to Grand Rapids, and all we got from U2 was a lecture by Bono. But, in two weeks, Quintessence of Dust will host Tangled Bank, and that'll have to do in the meantime.

Tangled Bank is an excellent old science/medicine blog carnival, and the 6 February edition will be #98. The current edition just went up at The Inoculated Mind. It's a blog I've visited occasionally; its author has turned up in discussions on the Reasons To Believe site, and it's a cool blog. Go check out Tangled Bank #97 over there, and see what else The Mind has to offer. Free admission!

So, please send me links to articles that you think the world should see. And get a haircut, will you?

22 January 2008

Evolution + Christianity + Integrity = "The New Theology"?

A long and fascinating piece in Sunday's Chicago Tribune Magazine ("The New Theology" by Jeremy Manier) explores some interesting results of the collision of faith and evolution in the lives of some famous people. The article prominently features Howard Van Till, a Calvin College emeritus and one of the reasons why Calvin is safe for evolutionary creationists like me. I think Howard's story is a sad one, partly because he seems to have abandoned Christianity, but mostly because his mistreatment is a scandalous disgrace to the Christian community of which I am now a part. Despite my discouragement at his rejection of Reformed Christianity, I consider him one of my heroes, and have already quoted at length from his work. He's the keynote speaker at this year's Grand Dialogue (annual science-faith conference here in Grand Rapids), and I am eager to hear from him anew.

Anyway, have a look at the article, and let me know what you think.

17 January 2008

Weekly Sampler 2

Well, I still haven't gotten to my "junk DNA" posts, which is a shame since the topic has been pretty hot in the blogosphere lately. The term ("junk DNA") is confusing in itself, which creates cover for propagandists, but there are some actual disagreements among the real scientists. The discussion among various bloggers is largely technical in nature, but the rancor is oh-so-bloggy.

1. Bickering about non-coding DNA is not new, and there is healthy controversy in the field. The simmering pot seems to have boiled over most recently when Greg Laden posted a little review of a paper on non-coding RNA that is expressed in the brain. Laden made a few errors, and although I happen to agree with his critics, T. Ryan Gregory and Larry Moran (at least because Gregory is an expert on the subject) I do think Laden is being spanked a little too hard. Read the comments in Laden's followup post to get a taste of the rhetoric.

Much of the "debate" is semantic, but ultimately I think Moran's got it all right here:

I hate to break it to you Greg, but junk DNA is not a myth. It really is true that a huge amount of our genome is junk. It's mostly defective transposons like SINES and LINES [Junk in your Genome: LINEs]. It's a lie that we don't know what most non-coding DNA is doing. We do know. It's not doing anything because it's mostly screwed up transposons and pseudogenes like Alu's.
More to come. No, really.

2. Read my friend and colleague Jamie Smith on the Fall in a book review in Books & Culture. His piece is plainly highly relevant to ongoing discussions here on QoD regarding the Fall, scripture and common descent. This paragraph is a feast:
What is consistently lacking in these secularized or formalized versions of the Fall is the distinct nuance of the Christian vision, viz., the ability to imagine the world otherwise. Without the prior goodness of creation, there is no Fall. Our present condition is "not the way it's supposed to be," as Cornelius Plantinga so aptly put it. So, too, the doctrine of the eschaton, which enables the Christian story to imagine humanity remaining finite and human but inhabiting the world otherwise. This is why Abraham Kuyper suggested that Christian scientists and scholars would always be "abnormalists," not tempted to confuse our currently observable world with the way things ought to be. To confess with the creed that God is the "maker of heaven and earth," and conclude our confession with the hope of "the resurrection of the dead," is to be able to imagine humanity otherwise while still affirming the finitude and embodiment that are constitutive of being creatures.
"Abnormalist"? Moi?

3. You've probably read elsewhere about the new publication from the National Academies, Science, Evolution, and Creationism, which can be freely downloaded from the NAS site. The NCSE has posted an article noting praise for the book in the press.

4. I'm not the only Reformed Christian who has praise for the New Atheists; The Banner is the newsmagazine of my church denomination, and a recent issue includes this gem: "Thank God for The God Delusion."

5. Here's a refreshing new voice, writing about his "journey" to The Dark Side an understanding and acceptance of common descent. Check it out, and go Mike!

6. We're counting the days in our household...we intend to be in the front row, and we'll camp out if we have to. Unos...dos...tres...CATORCE! (If you think I'm pitifully ignorant of Spanish, the joke's on you: according to Bono, this is Gaelic.)

7. I wonder if anyone at the Discovery Institute has mentioned or discussed an important article, published in the 13 December issue of Nature, titled "The origin of protein interactions and allostery in colocalization." I'll review it here soon.

8. In that same issue of Nature you'll find an article on "The molecular sociology of the cell." I'll give a prize to anyone who can explain the joke.

9. I gave a guest lecture at Calvin on Monday in the Evolutionary Biology course, on evolutionary genetics. Missed it? Here are some of the articles we discussed:
Restoring sight in blind cavefish, Current Biology, 8 January 2008
Using mobile genetic elements to determine whale ancestry, PNAS, 31 August 1999
Signs of selection: the concept of a "selective sweep" in a genome, PNAS, 10 February 2004
Mobile elements & how they drive genome evolution, Science, 12 March 2004
Detecting positive natural selection in humans, Nature, 18 October 2007
10. It was otherwise a hard week at Calvin.

11 January 2008

Weekly Sampler 1

I've explained before that I'm busy as an experimental scientist (on sabbatical) who does marriage and parenting as well, so I just can't get to all the blog posts I want to write. (Not to mention the ones I want to read.) And some tidbits and links wouldn't warrant an opus in any case. So, I'm starting a new feature, the Weekly Sampler, in which I'll imitate the "Links and Notes" posts at Siris (for example). Presenting the first Quintessence of Dust Weekly Sampler.

1. God in the brain makes the New England Journal of Medicine. Sol Snyder briefly reviews a book by neurologist Michael Trimble, The Soul in the Brain. The review isn't much, but it's interesting to see ID themes and Francis Collins cropping up in this context. The book sounds interesting...I think I should design a January term course on the subject so I can read it.

2. David Quammen's The Song of the Dodo is required reading for those who seek to get college credit for reading this blog. One of the many assets of the book is its detailed discussions of the work of Alfred Russel Wallace. Tuesday was his birthday, and 2008 marks is the 150th anniversary of his communication with Charles Darwin, a letter in which he described a theory of natural selection. (Quammen suspects Darwin of an ethical lapse in his handling of Wallace's letter.) A few people have blogged about Wallace; my favorite post is Wallace Should Hang by Olivia Judson, on her cool blog at the New York Times, The Wild Side. Her blog is very well written and extensively referenced. Highly recommended!

3. Christopher Heard has some worthy thoughts on "theistic evolution" and Genesis in a post at Higgaion discussing a theological article on the subject.

4. In discussions of Jonathan Wells' lame article on centrioles that is trumpeted as a tour de force of ID science, many of us have pointed out that the journal in which that paper appeared (Rivista di Biologia) is a joke. One way to demonstrate this is to refer to the so-called "Impact Factor" of the journal, which is a measure of how often the journal's articles are cited elsewhere. There are many complaints about this influential scoring system, among them its proprietary nature and occasional capriciousness. Plus, it costs money. Well, now there's a free alternative, and it looks like it might be superior in several ways to the current state of the art. The new metric is called the SCImago Journal Rank indicator, or SJR indicator, and it's based on more data than is the Impact Factor ranking. Just for fun, I looked up some journals of interest, and their 2006 SJRs.

Journal of Neurobiology (where I published my dissertation research): 1.056
Developmental Neuroscience (where I published my most recent paper): 0.616
Nature Cell Biology (where my most prominent first-author paper was published): 7.367
Experimental Cell Research (where I'm thinking of sending my next manuscript): 1.204
Rivista di Biologia (favored journal of ID "researchers"): 0.052
Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington (another outlet for reporting of ID "research"): 0.050

Wow. If nothing else, those ID guys make little scientists like me look like demigods, at least till someone does the Steve Matheson – Joe Thornton comparison...

5. This is an old tidbit from Siris, amplifying a point made by John Farrell regarding the habit of certain commentators to hold forth on the veracity of scientific explanations about which the commentators evidently know nothing at all. In this corner, Thomas Aquinas. In this corner...does it really matter?

6. I wonder if anyone can guess why I think this article in the current issue of Nature Genetics (or any of dozens like it) represents a very interesting opportunity for ID theorists and other creationists to prove themselves.

7. And finally, check out Edge, where the Annual QuestionTM is "What have you changed your mind about?" I think that's a great question, and I would love to know how my favorite people would answer. The Edge cohort is (by design) hardly representative of H. sapiens, but there are some very interesting entries. A few personal favorites, chosen for varying reasons: Scott Atran, Steven Pinker, Robert Sapolsky, Michael Shermer, Marc Hauser, Brian Eno, David Sloan Wilson, and Craig Venter. My top pick: Richard Dawkins, saying something I've thought about a lot lately:

When a politician changes his mind, he is a 'flip-flopper.' Politicians will do almost anything to disown the virtue — as some of us might see it — of flexibility. Margaret Thatcher said, "The lady is not for turning." Tony Blair said, "I don't have a reverse gear." Leading Democratic Presidential candidates, whose original decision to vote in favour of invading Iraq had been based on information believed in good faith but now known to be false, still stand by their earlier error for fear of the dread accusation: 'flip-flopper'. How very different is the world of science. Scientists actually gain kudos through changing their minds. If a scientist cannot come up with an example where he has changed his mind during his career, he is hidebound, rigid, inflexible, dogmatic! It is not really all that paradoxical, when you think about it further, that prestige in politics and science should push in opposite directions.
Can I hear an "amen"?

02 January 2008

Teosinte is selected...for an honor

Openlab 2007Watching lay Christians discuss evolution in the public arena is very frustrating for me. As I've stressed repeatedly here, evolutionary biology is some of the most fascinating and dynamic science to be found. But public discourse on the subject is strongly influenced by the antics of demagogues at places like the Discovery Institute, an organization that is committed to ensuring that as few Christians as possible will encounter the reality of evolutionary science.

This, I think, is one reason why some of the finest work in all of biology is largely unknown to Christians who are otherwise convinced that they are qualified to pronounce a major scientific theory a categorical failure. A perfect example: the ongoing work on the evolution of corn and its relationship to its wild ancestor, teosinte. It doesn't get much better than that.

Back in October, I wrote an introduction to this great story, and covered just a little of the evolutionary biology involved. People liked the post a lot, and it got some nice attention in the blogosphere.

Now, the post has been honored with inclusion in the second edition of The Open Laboratory, a science blogging anthology edited by Bora (aka Coturnix) at A Blog Around The Clock on ScienceBlogs.

Woo hoo! Thanks to Bora and to Reed Cartwright, the guest editor of the 2007 edition, to the various judges, to The Panda's Thumb, ERV, and Pharyngula for the links that got the story into the larger blogosphere, and especially to John Doebley and his colleagues for assembling a world-class scientific story.

De-bunking, not debunking

I'll soon post the first in a series of articles that will explain why I believe that Christians are unwise to turn to Reasons To Believe (RTB) or to other proponents of "intelligent design" for competent Christian commentary on evolutionary biology. I think it's important for Christians to reject folk science and the lack of integrity its presence implies, and my goal in creating Quintessence of Dust is to help Christians understand biology.

But in response to my introductory post on RTB's repeated misuse of the concept of "junk DNA," a commenter, dbecke, raised a very serious concern regarding this quest of mine:

I'm still looking for a philosophical and theological position here that isn't "folk" philosophy or theology. As I mentioned earlier, I'm not sure it does a great service to those of us in the evangelical community who want to confront this honestly to merely debunk popular creationist organizations. We need serious evangelical theological input on how all this relates to the doctrines of scripture, man, and the fall. Are there theologians at Calvin, for example, who will accept and contextualize your position? Otherwise it seems to me that there's a danger of debunking people's faith along with the folk science. [italics are mine]
My comment in response mentions some resources that dbecke and others might consult in search of evangelical "contextualization" of common descent, and I try to reveal why it is that I'm not as agitated by the theological issues as are some of my friends and colleagues. But that is insignificant compared to the risk of "debunking people's faith," which is my subject here.

I think the thrust of dbecke's point is that the exposure of deficient creationist folk science by itself is not helpful, because thinking evangelicals also need a theological framework within which to consider natural history and causation. In a very basic sense, I agree, because I affirm that all Christians need a theological framework within which to consider all of creation. And even more generally, I think that dbecke is right to call on evangelical scholars to carefully consider the ancient earth and common ancestry in the context of historic confessions of Christian faith and traditional commitments of evangelical Protestantism.

But I have two big problems with the way the challenge is presented. Addressing these concerns gives me the opportunity to be clear about my theological perspective, and about the risks I see in most creationist apologetics. My intent, then, is not to contradict or correct dbecke as much as it is to explain exactly why I strive to discredit creationist folk science (and lies).

My two objections to this challenge involve my rejection of these two proposals:
  1. It is assumed that the faith of a Christian can be undermined ("debunked") by rhetoric or argumentation; and
  2. It is asserted that, given the aforementioned assumption, the debunking (by a fellow Christian) of bogus apologetic claims entails unacceptable risk to the faith of those who embraced those claims.
In short, I don't buy the premise and I disagree even more vehemently with the conclusion.

Those who know what it means to be Reformed might already understand my rejection of the premise. I hold faith to be a function of God's grace, so that people come to faith by virtue of the work of God, who alone brings the dead to life. I'm a good enough Calvinist to believe that no one can be snatched out of God's hand. Therefore, I don't believe that people are won to faith by reason, and conversely I don't believe that people can be separated from Christ by argumentation. (How all this actually works is another topic.) So if I seem to be unmoved by warnings about "debunking" people's faith, chalk it up to my Calvinism (and roll your eyes if it helps).

But I'm even more concerned about the suggestion that debunking folk science can lead to the "debunking" of someone's faith. For the sake of argument, let's grant that someone could be talked out of their belief. Now let's imagine someone who has based some measure of his belief on false claims regarding the natural world. For example, let's consider someone who has come to faith after reading Creation as Science by Hugh Ross. (We'll call this person Sam.) Now let's assume that Sam actually believes that "biologists have yet to observe any significant evolutionary change, other than extinctions" (p. 142) and that Sam concludes (with Ross) that this factoid (among others concocted by RTB) points to the reliability of Genesis 1. Sam's faith is contaminated by folk science, and in this case the folk science is bogus and easily refuted.

Sam's faith, then, is vulnerable to whatever extent it is dependent on folk science. And there are three possible outcomes here. Maybe Sam will sail through life without ever confronting the most basic facts about evolution. Or maybe Sam will live in blissful ignorance until the fateful day that s/he meets, say, Sam Harris. Or maybe Sam will meet fellow Christians who will help decontaminate his or her faith and, if all goes well, leave her or him strengthened and encouraged by the knowledge that the foundation of our faith is not to be found in our understanding of eukaryotic genetics.

If you want to worry about Christians being exposed to the "debunking" of their faith, you should worry most about that second possibility. (See Ronald Numbers' testimony at the beginning of The Creationists for an example.) If you want to help, then think about ways to encourage Christians in their faith as defined by your favorite creed, focused on the only one with the power to save. And if you want to express anger, vent it at those who are peddling shabby folk science labeled as 'apologetics'.

One of my aims is to help people de-bunk their faith. Bunk is worthless at best, dangerous at worst, and a disgrace to the name of Christ in any case.

I'll sign off with this little fable I composed (in consultation with a budding novelist to whom I've been married for 23 years and 3 days). I hope it crystallizes my ideas and intentions so that I don't need to express them again soon.
The New Bicycles

Once there was a town in which there were many large highways that converged around a prominent hill. Atop that hill sat the town's only library. In order to get to the library, citizens of the town had to traverse the highways, which were frequented by speeding trucks and vehicles driven by reckless and malicious punks. The highway system was occasionally expanded, and there were frequent -- if not always confirmed -- reports of grisly deaths on the highways. Citizens had always found various ways to get to the library in safety, but many never attempted the trip, and folks were always looking for safer and more convenient routes to the top of the hill.

One day there was a commotion in the town square, which was situated about a mile from the library. A tall, wise-looking man in a suit was advertising a new and highly effective means of getting to the library. He was selling bicycles, and his claims were extraordinary. "This bicycle," he announced, "will get you safely to the library every time, and it will be faster and easier than any other means you can imagine. This bicycle has been compared to every other conveyance ever designed, and it has been found to be utterly superior to all of them."

Some people were a little skeptical, and asked some obvious questions. How do you know so much about bicycles? "I worked for ten years as a car salesman." Who designed the bike? "I did, with some help from my assistant, who has done detailing on motorcycles." How does it work? "Simple. Just read the manual. You ride, really fast, straight up this road till you get to the library." Wait, is it really that easy? "It sure is. I explain it all in my books." But what about the dangerous highway crossings? "No problem at all. The bike sails right through. Works every time."

He sold a lot of bikes, and people seemed happy with the product. Some ecstatic customers returned and reported that they had reached the library without so much as a scratch. Some had even seen the murderous punks on the road, but reported no problems. (Those that didn't return...well, no one heard from them, so I guess everyone thought they were okay.)

But one day a new person showed up in the town square. She rode up on a Trek Portland (you know, the all-weather ten-speed with fenders and disc brakes) wearing bike shorts and a super cool jersey. Her helmet had a sun visor, and her backpack clanked with tools. She was quite curious about the bikes that the man was selling, but he didn't seem interested in discussing them with her.

She looked the bikes over, then she started talking to his customers. "I wouldn't buy that bike if I were you." Why not? "It's quite poorly made. For one thing, it doesn't have any brakes." How would you know it doesn't have brakes? "Well, I'm a cyclist and a bicycle repair specialist." So? The man who sold me this is a famous bike salesman. He once sold cars, you know. "Yes, I know, but I think it's pretty clear he doesn't know very much about bikes. This bike is dangerous. It will get you to the library quickly and easily, but it's not safe. You're in danger when crossing the roads." Someone else scoffed. Oh, nonsense. I've ridden mine to the library, and I'm fine. I brought back this book about how to go really fast across the highway on my bike. It's written by the salesman.

The cyclist continued inspecting the bikes, discovering numerous flaws in their design and learning that the customers rode the bikes through some particularly dangerous intersections. As she urged people not to buy or ride the salesman's bikes, she found that some were confused about their options. Are you saying there are bikes that are better than this one? "Oh, yes, definitely. You can get a bike with brakes and with gears and with mirrors. But you don't need a bike at all. You can walk. There are stoplights and crosswalks at some of the intersections elsewhere in town. You can get to the library without so much risk, and you can enjoy the view of the town on the way. It takes longer, and it's more effort, but it's fun and interesting, and you can use the money you would have spent on the bike to buy good walking shoes. Or books."

Then the cyclist was approached by an earnest young man. Why are you telling people to get off the bikes? Some of them might not get to the library. "I'm not telling them to skip the library. I'm not even telling them they have to walk. I'm just trying to get them off those dangerous bikes." But the bikes get them there quickly and easily, and some people depend on the bikes for their access to books. "Y'know, kid, I'm certain that there are other ways to get to the library -- walking, for instance. But even if some people need a bike, there are other bikes that are much better made. Sometimes they're even a lot cheaper. I mean, that guy at Macbeth Cyclery is pretty much giving them away. And I repeat: these bikes here are dangerous. Some of the punks on that road are trying to hurt people who are on the way to the library. Crossing the highway with a defective bike is foolish, don't you think?" The young man shook his head. I don't know. Are you sure that people won't get hurt on the way to the library? "No, I'm not sure of that, and I'm not saying that walking removes all risk. But I'm sure that people are not better off when they're riding across a freeway on a bike with no brakes that was designed by a car salesman."