Monday, October 10, 2016

Book Review: How I Changed My Mind About Evolution

This won't be an ordinary book review, because I personally know or am acquainted with at least half of the people involved in this book and both of its editors, as a result of my involvement with this question for the past decade-plus, and of my participation in the BioLogos Voices team. So this was less "let's find out what other people think" than "let's find out WHY these particular people agree on this thing." As such, I can't really assess its persuasiveness, being already persuaded! However, I did pick up on some interesting parallels as I read through the books, taking each as a letter written in a human heart.

If I had to pick a favorite chapter, it's probably NT Wright's, even though it's the least personal of them all. Wright looks on this phenomenon from the outside and ties it to American history. As a country, we're trying to talk about race and the past, and I personally am finding more ways in which the past lives on today. It actually never occurred to me that both the Scopes Trial and the Creation Museum are in the South, and that evolution is connected to the great American sin, chattel slavery -- and also to the red-state--blue-state cynicism and mutual antagonism. Wright puts all that together in a mere page, much like he puts together ancient history with theology in his other work.

The other stories are much more personal, and each one is kept short enough that the ultimate cumulative effect is all the stronger for it. Most (but not all) start as Christians and then come to evolution. Most (but not all) focus on the personal rather than the data, leaving the actual arguments to other books. What I think would be interesting at this point would be another book about "How I Changed My Mind About Science," in which Christians talk about the positive influence faith has on their scientific work. But this book is a necessary first step to remove the barriers, before we can talk about the synergistic boost that both faith and science can experience when they are put together.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

A Letter to My Son About Creation

Dear Sam,

Today you are fourteen. I am so proud of how you’ve grown up from a little drooling turkey-sized thing to the young man you are today. I keep thinking about how we really only have four more years with you until you move out to college. I’m left with too many things to say in such a short time.

You inherited half of yourself from me. I see myself in your constant reading, in the way you are interested in so many things that it’s hard to pick a single thing, even in the way you file away the comics in your head. And it makes me remember what it felt like to be fourteen.

I had a lot of questions about how to put all that reading together, especially trying to reconcile the first few pages of my Bible with the first few pages of my science textbooks. After three decades of these thoughts, I’ve tried out just about every possibility to see how it works. When I was your age I read many people who insisted that the stories of the Bible and the stories of evolution don’t fit at all. These people said you have to trust one set of stories and throw away the others. Creationists said throw away the science, and Isaac Asimov (my favorite science writer) said throw away the Bible.

I remember a Saturday afternoon I spent sitting in church learning about how the six days that I read from the first chapter of Genesis were 24 hours long and each creation event was an abrupt creation from nothing. I started out believing them when they said that it gave God the glory to trust His Word over that of the scientists. But the more I learned and did experiments myself, the more I felt like there must be other ways to read all these books. So, I went through an “Intelligent Design” phase, and then a “God created everything else with evolution but Adam and Eve were separate” phase, and now?

I’d like to tell you where I am now in a story. I could tell you my biographical story, of how I changed my mind and why, but instead I’m reminded of the recent movie version of Noah. This movie took a lot of risks, and all of them didn’t work, but one of them worked very well. In the darkened ark, during the 40-day deluge, Noah sits down with his family and tells them the story of creation. In the movie, this is animated beautifully with images of nature, and I’m sure you remember how I’ve shown it to you on YouTube. (I even have a few issues with how the movie did this, but it’s better to tell your own story than correct someone else’s!)

Noah’s children walked out into a new world after 40 days. For you, it’ll be four short years. You need to know where you came from, and that God was here before you, me, anyone, or anything.

Here are a few words trying to capture a fraction of that story. Some of my words will be proved wrong, but the story remains true if it shows you who God is.


The story starts in the darkness. In the beginning, there was God. The Spirit of God fluttered over the empty chaos like a bird over the ocean. He spoke a word, and a pinpoint of something emerged, bright with light. Time and space flashed open, inflating like a balloon, obeying his command. Matter separated into pieces with positive charge and negative charge. These attracted each other like a swarm of magnets and joined into a multitude of indivisible bits that could snap together like so many LEGOs. God called these bits atoms. God set a limit for these atoms: they could not travel faster than light. God saw the atoms obey his limit, and he saw that it was good.

We watch as evenings and mornings pass. This ends the first part of the story.

God said, let many lights form. God made gravity, and the atoms gathered together. In some places, billions upon billions of atoms pressed down with enormous pressure. God called these places stars, and saw that they were good. Inside the stars, some atoms were squeezed into newer, bigger atoms, and the extra energy leaked out as light. One by one, the stars caught fire, blooming like flowers. They grew, and aged, and burst like seeds, spreading the new atoms across the universe.

We watch as evenings and mornings pass. This ends the second part of the story.

And God said, let a disc fly out from a new star and let it gather into new planets. After an intricate dance, eight planets obeyed his call. God saw that it was good, and he called that star the sun. Some say that the biggest planet moved in and out around the sun, clearing the space for the four planets inside. God set a limit: the planets settled into cycles, like dancers repeating the same steps again and again around the central star.

We watch as evenings and mornings pass. This ends the third part of the story.

One of the planets was not like the others. It was wet and open to the sun, warm but not too hot. God called this planet earth. God gave it a single moon that lit up its night sky and pulled the oceans over the dry land. God said, let the water form a cycle of weather, and, look, the water went up into clouds and came down as the rain. The water mixed with the dry land and, like an artist, drew shapes on its surface. And God said, let a cycle of life spring up from these atoms. And the earth brought forth tiny creatures, and they ate food that God gave them from the hot insides of the planet in chemical cycles. God blessed them, and the creatures built shelters and grew and changed. They filled the earth, and God saw that it was good.

We watch as evenings and mornings pass. This ends the fourth part of the story.

And God said, let the earth bring forth green things. And plants grew from the waters and the earth. These caught the light from the sun that God made, and turned it into sweet sugar and fresh oxygen. Oxygen’s power rusted and reacted with the planet and took away most of the food. There was a famine and life fell back. But, faithfully, the sun kept giving its light, and that light became more oxygen, and the oxygen became new life. Creatures learned to breathe the new air, and to use cycles of oxygen for energy and for building new things. These cells grew abundantly and joined together into animals big enough to see, but there was no one to see them yet.

We watch as evenings and mornings pass. This ends the fifth part of the story.

And God said, let the earth bring forth different kinds of animals, and the earth brought forth amphibians that crawled from the water, reptiles that basked in the sun, great sea creatures that lurked in the oceans, and birds that flew through the air. Some kinds ate plants and evolved strength and defense. Other kinds ate animals and evolved quickness and intelligence. Together the animals grew into cycles of biology that turned together to make ecosystems, like dancers repeating the same steps. Great extinctions pulled back on life, yet great expansions of new life followed.

Then God said to the earth, let us make humans in our image, after our likeness, male and female. God spoke, and his breath went out, and new cycles formed in the brains of humble primates. Out of those brains emerged minds that could see, understand, and even control the plants, the cattle, and the birds. And these humans became living souls reflecting the Creator into the creation. And God blessed them, and said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth. I have given you all this – take care of it.

And God saw every thing that he had made, and, yes, it was very good.

We watch as evenings and mornings pass. This ends the sixth part of the story.

In the seventh part, God ended his work. The heavens and earth were complete. God set a limit: God blessed the seventh day of the week, and set it aside, so that we too can enter God’s rest.

We watch as evenings and mornings pass.

Then, something happened that was not good. The father and mother of us all were deceived because they did not believe that God was good. They followed evil whispers and stepped outside of God’s limits. We all followed in their footsteps, and death ruled in us. Brother killed brother in broken, decaying cycles of greed and fear, and we were lost.

Into this darkness, God again brought light. God called a man named Abraham to leave the limits of his father’s country. From this man God called the nation Israel. The name Israel means “struggle,” and they indeed struggled with God. They received stories and limits from God, but they forgot them and failed to trust God. So God gave them judges and kings, but they fell back. One day the light of God’s glory left them. They did not notice.

Then, as a humble carpenter, God’s glory returned. We did not notice. Life ruled through Jesus, a different kind of king. He was full of grace and truth -- yet he was cut off and killed by the people of Rome and Jerusalem together. It was another broken cycle of violence and fear.

But the broken cycle was fixed! On the third day, on the first Easter Sunday, God vindicated Jesus by giving him new life, through the same Spirit that formed the earth, recreating and raising him from the dead, with a new body that goes beyond our limits.

The Gospel of John hints that Easter Sunday was the eighth day of creation, recorded not in rocks or trees but in transformed minds, bodies, and words. Like the first seven days, it was a unique act of God that built on and emerged from the previous events in surprising and creative ways.

This Eighth Day is repeated when Jesus is born again in someone’s heart and mind. Together we look forward to that day when God will raise the bodies of all who believe as he did Jesus’ body, and will restore all of God’s creation, and will reveal God’s Kingdom here on earth.

If you look in the right places, with eyes of faith, you can already see God coming, as God is creating new life and filling the earth with good things through the community of believers. The best part is that you don’t have to just watch -- you can join in as God uses your life to bring more life to this beautiful, broken world. God made you with love, as he made this planet, to be part of the continuing, evolving act of new creation.


I hope this shows you how I have found peace in reading first the Bible and then the science books. God told us some of this story in each book, and part of life is putting it all together. Now, what questions do you have? This story isn’t complete without them.

Love, Dad

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Book Review: Leviathan Wakes

This was recommended by an old friend, and between it and Stranger Things, I'm reliving my late 80's-early 90's teenage years. It feels like the good episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation but with more detail, politics, realism, and grit. Einstein remains right in this universe -- no one can exceed the speed of light. Some advances in propulsion allow journeys among the planets and asteroids of our own system, but it's much more like sea voyages than "snap your fingers and you're there" warp drives (don't even get me started on Star Wars light speed). It's also fairly politically realistic, at least more so than the highly polished Star Trek universe or the highly myth-driven Star Wars universe. As a result, it feels like it could happen. And happen it does. The plot moves at breakneck speed through a multitude of genres. I don't care for zombie horror that much, but then it moves on to detective noir, and then a technical space battle that feels like a war movie. The characters are deftly drawn (for sci-fi, which does involve a handicap). I especially like how the idealistic leader figure is portrayed, neither rosily nor cynically. Overall, even though this was a long book, I was tempted to jump into Book 2 of the series right away, because it's that good. Enjoyed (almost) every minute of it.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Hall of Fame of Cheap Science

The first day of class is always fun. I try to review two things:

1.) Cell Biology: Zoom in and out through the cell. How big are different biomolecules?
2.) Instrumentation: How to separate and analyze the parts of the cell with everyday items that could be used globally -- e.g., in Burundi. In the past few years this has expanded exponentially thanks to portable phones and 3D printing.

If I had a theme park, the first point would make a really great dark ride and the second would make for some EPCOT-like interactive exhibits.

Here's so you can listen in if you like (sorry for the loud scratchy mic at the beginning when I have to quiet them all down!):

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Book Review: The Spirit of Creation by Amos Yong

I wish there was a shelf in the bookstore called "Interdisciplinary." It would have to be a curated shelf, because there's lots of books that claim to be interdisciplinary, but only a few that truly are -- in which it could stand on its own in more than one discipline, and which is accessible to practitioners of all. Come to think of it, such a shelf might not exist because there might not be enough good books to stock on it. At any rate, The Spirit of Creation would fit on that shelf, combining theology (and a specifically Pentecostal angle on that theology) with philosophy of science and becoming more than the sum of its parts. Since one of the themes of the book is emergence, that result is entirely appropriate.

Yong has a knack for describing historical developments in both science and theology with a few sentences more effectively than others in many paragraphs. His description of the historical development of the concept of "laws of nature" accomplishes in a few pages what takes whole chapters in other places. This means that I can put his ideas together with scientists' ideas (like those of Terrence Deacon, in particular) and I suspect that something genuinely novel will emerge.

[My only hesitation comes in a late section on parapsychology, which I found unconvincing and unnecessary at the first reading (to be clear, I'm still going back and forth with myself on the necessity of it to the overall argument), although Yong's disclaimers at the beginning do a good job of insulating it from the rest of the argument. My biggest concern comes with how antagonists could take that section out of context and try to discredit the rest of the very good arguments as a result.]

Most importantly, Yong's pentecostal faith provides a necessary and helpful perspective that informs and enhances my own faith perspective -- and my science perspective. The specific thoughts on emergence seem to point a way forward that I've been thinking about for the whole week since I finished this book, and so it has already stuck with me and will continue to do so. File this on the top shelf.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Book Review: The Swerve by Stephen Greenblatt

This book is the closest thing we’ll get to the Gospel of Lucretius. It makes for an invigorating internal discussion in the vein of C.S. Lewis’s “second friend" (i.e., that friend who has read all the right things but gotten all the wrong ideas out from them). In Lewis’s case, he was referring to Owen Barfield’s fascinatingly flawed obsession with Rudolph Steiner and Theosophy, but the same sentiment applies to this book’s fascinatingly flawed obsession with Lucretius’s Epicurean philosophy.

It’s not that Greenblatt sees Lucretius’s influence in too many places – it’s that he sees them in too few. In this telling, Lucretius wrote On the Nature of Things, it had some influence but was all too soon eclipsed by Christianity, with the typical secular narrative example of "St. Hypatia" as told in the movie Agora.  Then, in this telling, Lucretius disappears until a chance discovery resurrects his ideas into glorious, enlightening victory.

But this ignores the central fact that Lucretius has always been around. Even in the "darkest" of Dark Ages, every Christian has an internal debate with doubt. It also ignores Stoicism’s constant presence in different guises throughout history. In my view, the writings of Augustine and Aquinas show the marks of struggle with Lucretian/Epicurean ideas and Stoic ideas. All writing that goes deep enough shows that each mind has a debate to settle between Lucretius and Christ, even if the ideas don't go by those names.

Exactly why Lucretius was eclipsed by Christianity in the first half of the first millennium is not convincingly explained; Greenblatt thinks the right ideas “lost” the intellectual battle but, to me, never explained why they lost (not convincingly at least). Greenblatt leans on explanations of a Christian emphasis on pain over pleasure, but if so I have no idea why anyone would take the Christian option ... yet that’s what happened historically. Something’s missing.

Then Greenblatt goes into great detail as to how a particular Italian rose to a certain clerical power and eventually found Lucretius through a string of luck. (Never mind that if I heard correctly, 50 copies of On the Nature of Things existed, and it seems that one would see the light of day eventually.) This story is told in so much detail that it takes up too much of the book. Rather than telling us exactly how convoluted (socially and morally) 15th-century Italy was, the story should have focused on why that situation existed and how the people thought. Instead of ideas we get a string of names.

But then, it does get interesting. The final chapters are the best, because once The Nature of Things emerges through the Renaissance, the influence of Lucretius can be traced all the way to Darwin (Erasmus, that is) and Jefferson. I'm not convinced that Lucretius is as central to these thinkers as Greenblatt seems to think he is, but at least we're talking about ideas here as ideas. This is where the history of ideas happens, and there should be more of it. (The chapter explaining the context of Lucretius and his early readers is also good and idea-rich.)

What stood out to me is how Lucretius’s ideas may have held back science in some cases. Atomism is right, but the Big Bang scenario is objectively closer to creation ex nihilo (at least on the surface) than it is to Lucretius’s endlessly cycling universe. Einstein resisted the Big Bang because he was too Lucretian, and reality turned out to look awfully medieval in this respect.

 I understand that you have to leave something out to write a book this short, but in that case, leave out the 15th-century Italian intrigue and talk about the ideas and the science more. I’d like something that could stand up to Thomas Pfau’s Minding the Modern, but instead, The Swerve is more on the level of The Purpose-Driven Life for people who don’t believe in purpose. Don't get me wrong -- it’s very worthwhile on that level, but it’s more about reaffirming the “faithful” than changing any minds. Obviously it didn't change mine!

Friday, September 16, 2016

A World from Dust (Plus): The Rapid Emergence of Life

For a scientist, opening up a new scientific journal is a bit like opening up a present on Christmas Day. I always get a slight thrill when I look through new journal articles and find one that further confirms something I'd suspected previously. I had that sensation a few weeks ago when I read "Rapid emergence of life shown by discovery of 3,700-million-year-old microbial structures" in Nature.

I admit that most people don't have their heart leap when reading those words, but compare that title to this quote that I wrote a year or two ago, now printed on p. 87 of A World from Dust:

"Before the clues, there is the question of timeline: When did life begin? This is a bit of a surprise in its own right. I would have thought that, given all the different molecules that have come together in any living thing, this assembly should have taken a long time. Instead, most evidence implies that life formed on this planet as quickly as possible, if not sooner."

"Living processes are even harder to pin down in rocks, but various lines of evidence (including unnatural imbalances of neutrons) can only be explained by life 3.5, 3.6, or even 3.8 billion years ago. A study of phosphorus in rocks 3.5 to 3.2 billion years old finds that life was mature enough to use phosphorus in a widespread, well- defined phosphorus cycle. Evidence for life immediately follows the evidence for oceans. An energy- diverting, growing, replicating chemistry followed the presence of liquid water in a geological blink of an eye."

This is why Chapter 5 (Clues to the Origins of Life) immediately follows Chapter 4 (the formation of the oceans). Many pieces of evidence point to the quick succession of these two chapters, including the "deep genealogy" studies that project what the oldest DNA sequences were like, resulting in an age of 3.8 billion years for the first proteins, as described on pages 87 and 88. Life springs up as soon as -- or even before -- the planet cools down enough to host it. This new Nature article is one more piece of evidence that fits into the quote above with an almost-audible snap.

Some have read the Nature article as a strike against "Darwinism" in some way, because this rapid emergence of complexity is inconsistent with slow, gradual change. But one of the main points of A World from Dust is that Darwinism isn't all about slow, gradual change. It's more like a symphony, a long, moving piece of music with different parts at different tempos, all reflecting the same theme of emerging life.

If the Nature article is a strike against Darwinism, then why was I, a scientist who admires Darwin and his ideas, so excited to read that sentence? Why did I write those two paragraphs as part of a whole book about evolution before this new finding was revealed? Yes, life emerged quickly, I've been saying that for a long time. I wrote those two paragraphs a year or two ago, and they are reinforced now. (Another point of my book is that it's possible to have disagreements about the nature and meaning of evolution without throwing out the idea of evolution, as shown by how often I contest Gould's "Tape of Life" metaphor yet remain convinced that evolution was the mechanism for generating life's diversity. For one thing, I think Gould's picture of evolution is at times too slow, and that it moved faster than he gave it credit.)

In the rest of my Chapter 5 I present seven chemical ideas, each one rooted in replicable laboratory experiments, for how the origin of life could have happened so quickly. I think that we might be able to understand how it happened by investigating chemistry -- in particular, the chemistry of oceans reacting with earth in oxygen-free water.

We live in a universe where we can see back 13 billion years with physics, all the way to the Big Bang, and we can understand how that worked. It stands to reason that we may be able to see back 4 billion years with biochemistry, all the way to this "Big Bang" of life, and to also understand how that worked.

I celebrate the fact that we have been given a universe we can understand, in which, periodically, life explodes with seeming joy. Understanding the chemical reasons that explain why the explosions happened doesn't take away that joy, but rather magnifies it. As I understand just how quickly life emerged, my heart leaps a little and I participate in that same old joy, as I receive that gift.