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This blog compiles the occasional musings of Randy Isaac who was ASA Executive Director from 2005 to 2016 and is now ASA Director Emeritus.

 

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Probabilities and Feedback

Posted By Randall D. Isaac, Sunday, May 27, 2018

One of the most common arguments used against evolution is that of probabilities. Someone will calculate the probability of a protein or a collection of biomolecules and show that the probability that it was formed by chance is 1 in a number so large that it takes an impressive number of digits just to write it down. The conclusion offered is that the probability is so low that anyone who believes in evolution must be ignorant and so biased toward evolution that they cannot think straight. Many people like to quote Herbert Yockey’s article “A calculation of the probability of spontaneous biogenesis by information theory”, in Journal of Theoretical Biology, 67:377–398, 1977.  He shows how many different combinations of amino acids are possible and he concludes that abiogenesis is impossible since the probability is on the order of 1 in 1065 that even a simple protein could form at random. Therefore evolution cannot even get started. Another favorite approach is to quote Fred Hoyle who, in a sidebar called “Hoyle on Evolution” in Nature, Vol 294, page 105, Nov. 12, 1981, cites the number 1 in 1040,000 as the odds of abiogenesis. Furthermore, Hoyle reportedly said the odds were comparable with the chance that “a tornado sweeping through a junk-yard might assemble a Boeing 747 from the materials therein”.

Much has been written to show the fallacies of this line of argument. The point I wish to emphasize in this post is the importance of feedback in thinking about probabilities. I have previously pointed out in a post on January 7, 2018 and in a letter to the editor in March 2012, the error in using combinations to derive probabilities. Evolution is a gradual process of change involving a high degree of parallelism and many steps, as I have shown in my review of the book Introduction to Evolutionary Informatics. Perhaps the most important element is that of feedback. It is not just the existence of many steps in evolution, but the role of feedback at each step. Survival to procreate is the crucial feedback factor that distinguishes any population of organisms or molecules. That is a feedback mechanism that provides active real-time information about the direction for evolution.

The importance of feedback has been shown mathematically by Herbert S. Wilf and Warren J. Ewens in their article “There’s plenty of time for evolution” in PNAS, December 28, 2010, vol. 107, no. 52, pp 22454–22456. They conclude that while combination-based probabilities scale exponentially, if there is any feedback those probabilities scale logarithmically. That is, for N elements, each selected from x possible values, the number of combinations scales as 1 in xN. However, with feedback at each step, the probability of success scales proportionally to 1 in x log(N). That is a very large difference. But their math isn’t easy to follow. A good way to illustrate the importance of feedback is to consider a familiar game.

The game of Mastermind, or any of the many variations of it, demonstrates the tremendous impact of feedback. In the game, two players each secretly select a short sequence of elements such as colors, numbers, letters, or words. Then the other player is challenged to guess that selection. For instance, one player may select the number 53882. The other player has a 1 in 100,000 chance of guessing it at random. This is equivalent to the scenarios that Yockey, Hoyle, and others would calculate. If this were the approach used in the game, both players would tire and starve long before the game was over. However, the game becomes interesting when some feedback is introduced. At each guess, the first player responds with some elementary feedback about the guess. Depending on the specific rules being used, it may be how many digits are correct, whether they are in the right position, or even which ones are correct, etc. With this feedback, the second player can usually guess the answer in about ten or fewer guesses. This makes the game challenging and interesting and possible. The probability drops from 1 in 100,000 to nearly 1 that the answer will be obtained.

In evolution, the feedback in each generation is the determination of which subset of the population will be the source of procreation for the subsequent generation. Unlike Mastermind, no intelligent being is required to make this determination. It includes all the individuals of that species that survive in the current environment and are able to reproduce. On average, this will tend to include a disproportionate number of those most likely to survive in a slowly changing environment. With a large amount of parallelism and continual feedback, the probability of attaining the combination of molecules necessary for life is very high.

Tags:  evolution  Evolutionary Creation  Probabilities 

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Theistic Evolution: The Source of New Information

Posted By Randall D. Isaac, Monday, February 12, 2018

Part 1 of the book we are discussing is devoted to a scientific critique of theistic evolution. The crux of the critique is that evolution is not a viable scientific theory and therefore it doesn’t make sense to try to connect it with Christianity. The claim that evolution is not viable has two main prongs. One is that evolution cannot account for the creation of new information as needed to generate the current biosphere. The other is that there is insufficient evidence for universal common descent. I will address the latter in the next post and I have already partially considered the first one in a previous post. In this post I want to focus more specifically on this first claim that evolution cannot create new information.

The first claim is sometimes called the “Law of Conservation of Information” which can be simply summarized as “new information can only be created by an intelligent agent.” The ubiquitous increase in complexity and information observed in the biosphere is therefore evidence that evolution is an inadequate explanation of nature and that there must be an intelligent agent that we as Christians worship as our God.

Very simply, there is no such universal law. It is an invention of the ID community to extend the concept to biology and is repeated often enough to become familiar to many. In their book An Introduction to Evolutionary Informatics, which I reviewed in the June 2017 issue of PSCF, Marks, et. al., trace the origin of this so-called law to Lady Asa Lovelace. She worked closely with Charles Babbage on mechanical computational machines and pondered the ability of machines to behave like humans. In the ensuing years, there have been many debates about whether artificial intelligence really exists and whether computer simulations can truly generate new information. Those who argue that computers cannot do so have coined the term “law of conservation of information” to lend credence to the argument. I do not wish to argue in this post whether or not computer simulations truly generate new information without it being inserted by intelligent agents. I believe it depends considerably on the precise definition of information being used. My main concern is to point out that whatever merit it may have in computer simulations or in artificial intelligence, it is not a universal law and there is no basis for extending it elsewhere, particularly to biology.

It must be pointed out that the definition of information used by the ID community is very different from that used in the scientific discipline of Information Theory. Marks, et. al., make this point very clearly. They reject the physical view of information as defined by Claude Shannon and Rolf Landauer and other pioneers of information theory, claiming it is of no interest to them. Rather they only want to focus on the meaning of information, which was explicitly excluded by Claude Shannon. This resonates with the general public who think of information more as who won the Super Bowl or what’s on sale at Walmart than the physical basis of information. The meaning of information is contextual and cannot be quantified. Therefore, it cannot be addressed scientifically in the same way as physical information..

An example of physical information would be the material shape of a letter of the alphabet, whether the distribution of ink on paper or a trace in the sand. Another example would be any sequence of letters or numbers. The number of ways in which letters of the alphabet can be arranged in, say, five letter words, can easily be quantified. In contrast, the meaning of the shape of a letter of the alphabet or of a sequence of five letters cannot be expressed as an equation or some universal criterion. It is not a physical entity but an abstract relationship.

Interestingly, meaning can also refer to a physical function as well as an abstract relationship. Specifically in biology, the meaning of a DNA sequence and the protein for which it encodes can be a specific necessary biochemical reaction. Even though the meaning is a physical process, it cannot be quantified since the need for a particular reaction is dependent on the environment, on the biochemical reactions leading from the DNA to the protein, and on the survival needs of the larger organism in which it exists.

Steve Meyer is well known for popularizing the law of conservation of information with a simple assertion. He often repeats some variation of this theme: “All our experience is that information is generated only by an intelligent source. Thus biological information can only come from an intelligent designer.” To illustrate his point, he cites in some depth a variety of examples such as language, computer software, telephone numbers, engineering marvels, etc.

This striking example of inductive reasoning would normally be rejected by the ubiquitous observation of information being generated without an intelligent agent, just as the 1697 discovery of a black swan falsified the inductive expectation that all swans were white. Dennis Venema has amply provided numerous such examples in his 14-part series at this BioLogos site, and we can all observe it in every reproductive event in the biosphere. But no, the position of Meyer and colleagues is that all these examples are not truly “new” or are inadequate to account for macroevolution or simply show that there must have been an intelligent designer to generate all this information. In my opinion, this is circular reasoning to the extreme.

To make a credible case, Meyer should have analyzed the examples he offered in an effort to understand just why the examples he cites require intelligent sources and whether those requirements exist in the realm of biology. I have personally asked him to do that but he has not done so. I would suggest that the reasons why his proffered examples require intelligent sources is that they are all instances of human-designed systems. All of them involve abstract relationships in some form for either the formation, operation, or verification of the system. Since abstract reasoning is one of the hallmarks of intelligence, it follows that each of those systems requires intelligence. In sharp contrast, no abstract relationship has been detected in the biosphere. All activity involves some kind of biochemical reactivity. Some would counter that the genetic code is an abstract relationship but it is only our human description of that code that is abstract. The actual nucleosomes, amino acids, ribosomes, etc. perform their physical activity without involving any abstraction in formation or operation. Even the verification, meaning the effectiveness of enabling survival of the organism, is physical. No abstract relationship is required. Hence, Meyer’s appeal to “all our experience” cannot be extended to biological information.

Virtually the entire book, from the supposed scientific critique to the philosophical and theological critiques based on it, depends on this fundamentally flawed claim that new information requires an intelligent agent. Without it, the critique of theistic evolution fails.

Tags:  evolution  information  theistic evolution 

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Theistic Evolution: Directed or Undirected?

Posted By Randall D. Isaac, Thursday, December 21, 2017

Steve Meyer says “An even more foundational issue arises when considering the cause of biological change and the question of whether theistic evolutionists conceive of evolutionary mechanisms as directed or undirected processes.” (p. 42) This has become a frequent question in debates where an advocate of evolutionary creation will be asked whether they believe evolution is directed or undirected.

Meyer goes on to say “…depending on how this particular understanding of theistic evolution is articulated, it generates either (1) logical contradictions, (2) a theologically heterodox view of divine action, or (3) a convoluted and scientifically vacuous explanation.” (p. 43) He explains those three problems in the subsequent six pages. In essence, he says that no matter what answer is given, the implication is unacceptable. Hence, theistic evolution is not a tenable position.

All too often I have heard an evolutionary creationist attempting to respond to this question in public. It seldom ends well. In my view, it is the wrong question, a trick question that cannot be answered simply. It reminds me of several occasions recorded in the Gospels in which the Pharisees try to trap Jesus, or vice versa, such as in Matt. 22:15-22. What makes the directed/undirected evolution question a trap question? If the response is “directed,” then there must be an intelligent designer and theistic evolution is invalidated. If the response is “undirected” then you are a deist or agnostic because God is not involved.

Why is the question the wrong question? One way to see the inappropriateness of the question is to try to apply it to other fields of science. Is gravity directed or undirected? Is the weather directed or undirected? Why is it clear that these questions are meaningless but we ask whether evolution is directed or undirected? Similarly, the terms “theistic gravity” or “theistic weather” seem inappropriate but we focus on the term “theistic evolution.”

Another reason is that the question is ambiguous. The terms “directed/undirected” have more than one connotation. One is the theist/deist contrast in which “directed” refers to the view that God creates/sustains everything and every action to carry out his will while “undirected” indicates the deist or agnostic/atheist view that God is not involved in moment to moment phenomena. Another connotation is that “direct” refers to God’s intervention beyond the laws of nature. Here “undirected” implies that God acts in a manner consistent with the cause and effect relationships that we codify as laws of nature.

I would suggest that the theistic evolutionist would respond to the directed/undirected question with “Both! Evolution is directed because of God’s intimate involvement at each moment and it is undirected because it does not violate the cause and effect relationships by which God consistently acts.” Meyer claims that it is a logical contradiction for evolution to be both directed and undirected. But when those terms refer to two different connotations, then the contradiction disappears. The same answer would apply to gravity or weather.

Evolution differs from gravity or weather in one major way that we may cite as the reason for our different treatment. Gravity and weather are thought of as stand-alone happenings. In contrast, evolution is seen as directional, leading to a goal. The real question then is a teleological one. Do you believe evolution has a teleological goal? More to the point, do you believe that evolution can attain its teleological objectives, if any, without an agent superseding normal laws of nature? Here the distinction becomes clear. Theistic evolution says yes while the opponents in this book say no. This is not a deist vs theist issue but a question of how we believe God carries out his purposes in nature.

Ultimately, I would suggest that the primary concern about “theistic evolution” is how can a theistic, teleological perspective be reconciled with a scientific theory that is inherently contingent, depending on a vast number of random events? The Bible records several events where God’s will is carried out through random processes so we cannot claim it is a “logical contradiction.” Neither are we likely to detect a method by which God carries out his will.

Virtually all the skirmishes about scientific data and all the debates about fine points of philosophy and hermeneutics that comprise the rest of the book pale before this primary issue, in my opinion. Atheists and agnostics are in full agreement with Meyer that God’s active teleological involvement in nature is in direct conflict with a contingent evolutionary process. The former use scientific support for evolution as evidence for a meaningless, purposeless universe without God or perhaps a deistic God. The latter uses doubts about scientific data to claim that evolution is not an adequate description of nature. Theistic evolution disagrees with both and claims that God can and does carry out his will through consistent laws of nature that include random processes.

Tags:  evolution  Evolutionary Creation  theistic evolution 

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Theistic Evolution: Goals of the book

Posted By Randall D. Isaac, Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Part 2 of a series discussing:

J. P. Moreland, Stephen C. Meyer, Christopher Shaw, Ann K. Gauger, and Wayne Grudem, eds. Theistic Evolution: A Scientific, Philosophical, and Theological Critique. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2017.

Two of the editors, Steve Meyer and Wayne Grudem, helpfully provide a “General Introductions” section at the beginning of the book. In 45 pages, they offer a synopsis of all thousand pages. It is a good way to understand the essence of the message before looking at the details in the remaining pages.

On pages 64 and 65 of the book, Wayne Grudem offers this summary of the goals of the book:

“Our goal in this book is to say to our friends who support theistic evolution, and to many others who have not made up their minds about this issue,

1. that recent scientific evidence presents such significant challenges to key tenets of evolutionary theory that no biblical interpreter should think that an evolutionary interpretation of Genesis is “scientifically necessary”;

2. that theistic evolution depends on a strictly materialistic definition of science that is philosophically problematic; and

3. that the Bible repeatedly presents as actual historical events many specific aspects of the origin of human beings and other living creatures that cannot be reconciled with theistic evolution, and that a denial of those historical specifics seriously undermines several crucial Christian doctrines.”

My response is as follows:

1.       A. All scientific challenges of evolutionary theory concern the details of mechanisms and specific applications and none has yet arisen concerning the basic overarching theory. To the contrary, a tremendous amount of evidence for the basic theory of evolution has been amassed and its foundation is stronger than ever. B. I do not know of anyone advocating an “evolutionary interpretations of Genesis.” All that is sought is an accurate biblical hermeneutic that reflects the truth. While the truth of evolution may be helpful in some way, there is no evolutionary interpretation per se.

2.       No theistic evolutionist I know thinks that it depends on a strictly materialistic definition of science. The scientific data are vast and compelling independent of a strictly materialistic definition of science. A proper theistic definition of science does just fine.

3.       Grudem’s presupposition here is fundamental concordism, in which the Biblical message must correspond to modern science. I do not know of any biblical passage that teaches such concordism. The basis for concordism is no more than human imagination of how biblical inspiration might have occurred. A more proper presupposition is that the Bible is the inerrant revelation of God to us and that its theological message is inerrant, using phenomenological language understandable by all people of all ages, and specifically the cosmology accepted in the era in which it was written. No contradiction to evolution is evident.

 

Clearly, I have made many assertions that I will need to explain and justify in future posts as we address various specific chapters in the book. Stay tuned.

Tags:  concordism  evolution  Evolutionary Creation  faith  science  theistic evolution 

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Theistic Evolution: A First Impression

Posted By Randall D. Isaac, Friday, December 8, 2017

Part 1

Although I’m somewhat late in completing a couple of committed book reviews, I’ll take the liberty of interrupting that process to share some musings on another book. November 30 was the publication date of this book:

J. P. Moreland, Stephen C. Meyer, Christopher Shaw, Ann K. Gauger, and Wayne Grudem, eds. Theistic Evolution: A Scientific, Philosophical, and Theological Critique. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2017.

It is over a thousand pages long, of which 939 comprise the text with footnotes. I knew the book was coming and had already realized that I did not want to spend the time reading, let alone reviewing, this massive book. There are many other people more capable than I who will be doing that. But yesterday, a friend of mine gave me his free copy which he said he knew he would never read. As I flipped through the tome and read excerpts, I felt I wanted to share some thoughts and feelings. I would not ask any publisher to publish this but in this forum I feel free to say what I think. I hasten to add that all my comments are solely my personal opinions and do not in any way reflect the opinions of the ASA or anyone else. I also want to encourage any of you with differing views to share your comments. I learn much more from those of you who disagree with me than from those who share my opinions.

I will post some thoughts in the future about the content of the book. In this post I merely want to express my emotions at the existence of the book itself and what it says to me. In a tangible way, the book symbolizes a sharp repudiation of the effort for which I and many others have devoted so much time. We have urged that the core issues of the relationship between science and Christian faith be discussed freely with each other in a Christian spirit of civility and respect for one another. We have also held that science and Christian faith are inherently in harmony and we seek to understand that harmony in more depth. This book dispenses with all such attitudes and comes out swinging. It is an uncompromising attack on evolutionary creation, which I believe is now held by a majority of scientists who are Christians, though not by the broader non-scientific Christian community. The authors yield no slack for any other views and leave no door ajar for discussion. There is little evidence that effort was made to ensure that opposing views were included or were correctly articulated and addressed if they were. Even the title conveys a subtle message of antagonism. They authors are well aware that the term “evolutionary creation” has supplanted “theistic evolution” for more than a decade. Yet, they chose to continue with the older term, probably because it is more widely recognized but perhaps also because “theistic evolution” has been around long enough to attract an antagonistic reputation in the Christian community.

It didn’t have to be this way. The recently published book by BioLogos and Reasons to Believe is an excellent example:

Old Earth or Evolutionary Creation?: Discussing Origins with Reasons to Believe and BioLogos by Kenneth Keathley  (Editor),‎ J. B. Stump  (Editor),‎ Joe Aguirre (Editor)

Rather than simply publishing a book opposing the other viewpoints, these organizations, to their great credit, spent a great deal of time in personal discussion and in jointly writing their respect views. This is a demonstration of Christian love and respect that is a model for all of us. The ASA has always had a policy of not taking a stand on an issue for which there is honest disagreement among Christians. Its aim has been to encourage diversity of opinions among its members and to foster open discussion of differing views in spirit of love and civility. While not every interaction has measured up to its ideal, the organization continues to aim for constructive dialog. It is fair for those who oppose theistic evolution to publish their ideas. It is paramount that such attacks include an openness to respect other views and, preferably, to give voice to their response. No such attitude is apparent in a cursory look through the book. I hope to find some on a closer reading but the message is clear.

Personally, I find the book to be the final straw in showing the failure of what I worked hard to achieve in the ASA. When I became executive director in 2005, one of my high hopes and expectations was to find a way to bring the ID and anti-ID communities together in fruitful dialog with, at the very least, a measure of respect and continuing communication with each other. I worked hard, mainly in private with individuals but also in group settings, toward this end. But the task was daunting and positions hardened. Respect was in rare supply. We did manage to have some degree of ID participation in most of our annual meetings but the extent of personal mingling and follow-up discussion was generally meager.

This book will fuel the flames of the conflict model of science and Christian faith. Harmony is not to be found except on their own terms, redefining both science and the Bible. It sets back years of progress in understanding both science and the Bible. I am deeply saddened and I grieve at its publication. In some future posts, I will address the content of the book from selected portions but the tone of the book sets a major challenge before us all.

Tags:  evolution  Evolutionary Creation  faith  science  theistic evolution 

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Larson&Ruse Chapter 7--Sex and Gender

Posted By Randall D. Isaac, Thursday, December 7, 2017

Here Ruse takes the lead but with several sections by Larson in recounting the historical perspectives on sex and gender, particularly regarding the relationship between the scientific and religious understandings.

 

Much of the human condition is portrayed in the first two chapters of Genesis. “First, humans come in two different kinds, male and female, and this is a fundamental distinction or difference…Second, the Bible is quite unambiguous about females’ and males’ relative statuses. Females and males are humans, and they are distinguished from the rest of creation in both being equally made in the image of God…Third, it is difficult to escape entirely the impression that some are more equal than others. The second version of the story has God creating Adam first and then almost as an afterthought creating Eve to keep Adam company.” (p. 186-187)

 

“In short, Judaism and Christianity are far more complex on the nature and status of women than one might suspect from a quick simplistic reading.” (p. 189)

 

Islam and Eastern religions also have a complex view on cultural issues such as gender relationships.

 

“Historically…the sciences serve to reinforce religion more than to challenge it.”(p. 193)

 

“…Darwin takes his Christian thinking, reads it into biology, and then happily reads it out again as confirmation of what he believed all along.” (p. 203)

 

“Does religion demand male and female? It’s hard to say, because it’s never really a question that comes up---“He created male and female.” Does biology demand male and female? Certainly not, because most organisms do not have sex. They are asexual and reproduce by budding or division and the like. Whatever the cause, it does seem that sex is a powerful tool of evolutionary change, however, and it is hard to imagine higher organisms having gathered together all of the genes that they need without sex.” (p. 203)

 

“…in the science and religion context, gender differences and sexual orientation raise overlapping issues and concerns. Both science and religion came to these topics with traditions in place, preferences set, and already formulated, culturally laden answers to intensely personal questions. New empirical findings emerged, once-established facts were reinterpreted or discounted, technologies and politics evolved, and new cultural norms and social practices emerged.” (p. 211)

Tags:  evolution  Larson  On Faith and Science  Ruse 

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Larson&Ruse Chapter 6--The Evolution of Humanity

Posted By Randall D. Isaac, Thursday, November 30, 2017

Larson takes a closer look at the details of Darwinism, focusing on applying it to humans. “Speaking from a historian’s perspective, however, the big issue has never been the theory of evolution in general, but applying it to humans. After all, many people care more about humans than they do about other animals. And who cares if plants evolved? But many people find the idea of descending from monkeys or being related to apes as really quite degrading to their self-image.” (p. 159)

 

“…even as mild-mannered an evangelical as Oxbridge scholar C. S. Lewis agreed that, while he accepted the theory of evolution, he too drew the line when Darwin began monkeying with man.” (p. 161)

 

“[Darwin’s letter to Asa Gray] passed quickly from observations of what seems evil in nature (such as cruel animal behavior) to their implications for what seems well-designed good in it (such as the human eye), and then moved on to ponder the origin of what seems positively good (such as human morality and mentality). Few Christians want to blame God for the first; many could go either way on God’s role in the second; but all want to attribute the third to their God.” (p. 165)

 

Larson proceeds to articulate concisely the sequence of discoveries of hominid fossils that documented what Darwin suggested. Throughout this history, the lines of demarcation were clear between those who were excited by and those who were frightened by “the prospect that humans evolved from beasts by a naturalistic process that goes back in some material cause-and-effect chain to earliest forms of life.” (p. 183)

 

“Today, Darwin’s sketchy social theories have matured by way of E. O. Wilson’s sociobiology and modern evolutionary psychology to become foundational for understanding in the social sciences. Through it, human behavior is reduced to the physical, and people become merely matter in motion with evolved self-consciousness.” (p. 183-184)

Tags:  evolution  Larson  On Faith and Science  Ruse 

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Evolutionary Informatics

Posted By Randall D. Isaac, Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Now that the Ellis book review is in process for publication, it's time to move on to the next challenge. This time I will attempt a review of the forthcoming book in February 2017, Introduction to Evolutionary Informatics, by Robert Marks, Bill Dembski, and Winston Ewert. Their website gives some indication of what it is about.

In contrast to the Ellis book, I will not bore you with notes and comments along the way. I would, however, be greatly interested in any perspective that any of you may have on this subject. If you have any knowledge of or interest in this topic, I would love to hear from you. It would help me.

Randy

Tags:  evolution  informatics  information 

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draft for Smithsonian post

Posted By Randall D. Isaac, Sunday, November 6, 2016

The Broad Social Impacts Committee of the Smithsonian Institute is asking each of us as members to write a 500 word or less post responding to a question about the Anthropocene Epoch. The question I am addressing is:

 "From your religious, philosophical or personal perspective, how do you understand the significance of the evolutionary process that has led to the global impact of Homo sapiens on planet Earth?"

 

I have written the draft below. It's a first pass and I'm willing to edit it significantly. I would greatly appreciate suggestions and comments from all of you. It is due before the end of November but I'd like to get it off my to-do list.

Thank you!

 

“What Are Human Beings That You Are Mindful of Them?”

Psalm 8:4, NRSV

Randy Isaac

The effort to formally designate our current age as the Anthropocene Epoch can be seen as either a paean to humanity or as an expression of self-exaltation. The latter view considers each extant species to be a successful culmination of billions of years of evolution with no species having superiority. The former view sees our species as a distinctive species worthy of praise for its accomplishments.

The psalmist looks at the grandeur of the heavens, notes the moon and the stars, and exclaims how remarkable it is that God would be mindful of human beings, by comparison hardly worthy of note. Yet the psalmist continues with amazement that God “…made [human beings] a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor. You have given them dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under their feet…” (Ps 8:5-6, NRSV)

The biblical perspective resonates with the Anthropocene Epoch designation in several ways. Three of those ways to be considered here are the uniqueness of humans, the human capability of understanding other species, and the responsibility given to humans for stewardship.

The biblical perspective emphasizes the uniqueness of humankind. Humans are the final act of creation and are the only species to whom God gives his own image. The Son of God became a human, signifying a special relationship between God and humans who have God-given responsibilities and are accountable to God. Scientifically, the unique evolutionary achievement of humans is manifold. Humans have an unparalleled adaptability enabling survival through significant environmental changes. Humans have an enhanced level of consciousness, communication skills, and ability for abstract reasoning. No other species comes close to human ability in these areas.

While most species interact with other species as needed for survival, only humans seem capable of studying and understanding any other species, independent of need. The biblical perspective stresses this capability in the account of Adam naming the animals. In Genesis 2:18-20 God forms animals and birds as helpers to Adam and they are brought to him for naming. The ancient practice of naming was not an arbitrary task of finding a pleasing word but an in-depth study of the characteristics of the one being named, assigning a name reflecting their nature. This is an indication that humans have evolved the ability and the mission of studying and understanding the nature of all species.

God explicitly gives humans the assignment of having dominion over the earth and all that is in it. This is a mandate for stewardship and loving care. Our scientific recognition that humans have a global impact, whether for good or for bad, shows how we cannot escape this assignment. The designation of an epoch reflecting our impact on the earth is a powerful reminder that we are responsible for sustaining all life on earth. May we all do our part to nurture and care for our world.

Tags:  anthropocene  evolution  human evolution 

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Evolution in Motion

Posted By Randall D. Isaac, Friday, April 29, 2016

Last night I attended a lecture at the Harvard Museum of Natural History on “From Supercontinents to Islands—Evolution in Motion.” It amazes me that a supercontinent like Gondwana existed as recently as about 200 million years ago. That’s a small fraction of earth’s history—less than 5%--and it means that plate tectonics are awfully fast. At least in geological timeframes.

The speaker, Gonzalo Giribet, showed a slide of the age of the ocean floor. Very little was between 200 and 400 million years old and virtually nothing older than that. Almost all of it is younger than 180 million years. In contrast, continental surfaces feature rocks ranging all the way close to the 4.65By age of the earth. That’s amazing.

The islands he was discussing were those that had formed by breaking away from the big continents during the split up of Gondwana into the current continents. For example, New Zealand, Madagascar, Sri Lanka, and many parts of Southeast Asia have been identified as having once been part of Gondwana and then were isolated. By tracing the evolutionary history of species on these islands, information can be inferred of the time and history of that isolation.

One controversy, I learned, is whether or not New Zealand was entirely submerged under water after its isolation. Indications are that it may have been submerged about 25 million years ago. The author showed evidence that he thinks is increasing in the last few years that the island was not entirely submerged after all. This stems from the diversity of species of invertebrates. He really loves those daddy long-legs.

Giribet has also spent a good deal of time in Antarctica, deep sea diving in those icy waters to retrieve countless specimens of invertebrates. I learned that part of what influenced Antarctica to have a very cold climate after a relatively warm climate was that its isolation from Gondwana opened up a circumpolar ocean current that in effect isolated the island and became a refrigerator. What an amazing history.

Tags:  evolution  Gondwana  islands  supercontinents 

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