It is Evolution’s Daddy’s Birthday.

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Today is Darwin Day – in other words, it’s the big boy’s birthday. He would have been 205 years old if he had lived!

Charles Darwin was born on this day in 1809 and he died in 1882 at age 73.

He was a Geologist who contributed greatly to so many areas of scientific study. He contributed to Archaeology; he gathered insects and birds of previously unknown types and gifted them to Universities for further study. And he travelled the world. He was fascinated by the ethnography of people.

What a great man.

And he was also fascinated by how breeding could adjust the attributes of pigeons. A breeder could change the shape of eyes and beaks by pairing certain types of birds together over many generations. He was amazed to see a similar phenomenon in Nature – the Finches that lived on the Galapagos Islands seemed to change their beak length depending on what the natural climate was doing.

Darwin put these and many observations into a melting pot of careful observation and study and experience. The result was a proposal that all life on planet earth must have arisen thru selective breeding on a single, primordial life form. But there wasn’t a person doing the breeding. Instead – Nature itself was doing the breeding – randomly changing the attributes of a creature to form a different class of creature. And only the strong variations survived – thru the process of Natural Selection.

I’ve not done justice to his theory – but that’s the crux of it, I think. This was the free thinking, radical theory that challenged the Western World when he proposed it.

And yet I wonder…

… if Darwin had been alive today, would he still have proposed his theory? Would he have stood behind it as a credible idea in 2014?

When today we can peer into the inner workings of each microscopic cell – and watch the operation of a complex biological factory. A factory humming with different machines which are managing and processing information constantly.

  •  Machines to read the instructions that are somehow encoded in your DNA that code for countless proteins that are essential for your body to function correctly
  •  Machines that combine amino acids according to the amazing  instructions
  •  Machines that fold up the resulting strand into a precise shape to allow the protein to do its specific job in your body

When today we have spent nearly 100 years understanding information theory and software engineering. And we can see abundant evidence of both of these disciplines…and so many others… in the groundwork and the operation of our cells.

  • Each of your body’s countless billion cells contains 700 megabytes of digital information. (Scientists have started using DNA as the equivalent of biological USB Memory sticks today. Cool eh? Yet life has had this technology built in all along…and we are only just starting to catch up)
  • Digital information takes time and effort to create. Just ask any software engineer who is staring down the barrel of the project plan. And has a boss breathing down his neck…telling him that he must finish debugging his code NOW! Just ask any blogger who is looking at a blank page – trying to think of something interesting to say.
  • And what effect does randomness have on information? Does it contribute to the creation of information? No. We have found that random activity degrades information. It is like the noise on the line that causes your mobile phone conversation to be so difficult to understand that you end the call. Randomness is not a friend to digital information. It destroys it. It does not create it.

I imagine Mr Darwin looking at the completely new, innovative and mind boggling Scientific evidence we have amassed today, over a century since his death. I imagine him shaking his head in wonder and saying – “Hey – it was a great thought. But in the light of all this new discovery… I’d better think again. Forget evolution. There must be another more reasonable answer to why life on this planet looks so exquisitely and carefully designed!”

He would be right.

I’m pretty darn sure that it was.

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A Curiosity Snap

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This might surprise you.

Above the door to the Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge University is not a pithy quote from a forefather of Experimental Physics or Evolutionary Biology. No – the quote above the entrance to the Lab is from the Bible – Psalm 111 verse 2, to be exact.

“Great are the works of the Lord, studied by all who delight in them.”

If you are thinking – “Yea – I bet that was a decision made over hundred years ago at a far more religious time” – then you might be partly right. When the Cavendish Laboratory opened in 1874 the prescription above the door was indeed Psalm 111:2, written in Latin.

“Magna opera Domini exquisite in omnes voluntates ejus”

But before you dismiss these  naive people of a more ignorant time…think again. When the Cavendish moved location in the early 1970s, the decision was made for the inscription to remain above the door. And everyone who enters this seat of learning in Cambridge walks beneath it to this day.

So what? Why should I care?

Because that quote hits the nail on the head. Consider this:

Last week, 50 million miles away from where you are reading right now, on the surface of the planet Mars the Curiosity Rover stopped and turned its robotic eye to the sky. And it snapped a startling photograph. Someone has kindly tagged us all in that photograph. You can see it above

On its lonely mission, as it explores the Martian landscape, Curiosity snaps a picture of us. Or more accurately – it snaps a picture of the distant Earth.

That is mind blowing. An army of scientists and engineers from many disciplines worked long and hard for years to get the Curiosity Rover safely onto the surface of Mars in 2012. My mate Mike is one of them. And you can hear him talk about it here.

Why did they all put the effort in? The long days…weekends…late nights? Why did they allow themselves the torture of launching their carefully crafted rover into space in the hope that it would land safely on Mars months later?

Because these people delight in our Universe. They are filled with insatiable curiosity about how our Universe works and what is out there. And because they delight in creation – studying it is no chore to them. It is what they were born to do!

“Great are the works of the Lord, they are pondered by all who delight in them.” Psalm 111:2, NIV

Curiosity’s photograph reminds us how wonderful our Universe is – and how talented the engineers are who got that little guy onto that alien landscape in the first place! But it also points back to the Cavendish Laboratory inscription. The Bible makes a good point.

We passionately explore our solar system because it is there. We visit alien planets with unmanned spacecraft because we can…and because planets exist to be explored. We are so fortunate that we are the ones living at a technologically advanced time where space travel is possible.

But more than that – we are such fortunate people to be alive. To exist. To have been placed in this mind bogglingly beautiful yet mysterious Universe. We are indeed blessed to have the opportunity to delight in and to intensely study creation.

But it’s not our Universe. We are only placed here. We are only passing thru it. We live for a few short years in which to discover who we are, exercise our brains and our talents and our personalities. We discover and we theorize. And we pat ourselves on the back for being pretty smart.

But the One who created it and holds it all together – wow. His works are truly great in every sense of the word. And with all our cleverness – we are merely scratching the surface of His wonderful works.

Let me end with three brief points.

First – may I suggest humility and respect as we pass thru His creation; both personally in our own lives, and cosmically as we explore our Solar System. After all – we are not here to stay. We are the visitors here.

Second – even though it’s not the cool thing to ask for – may I suggest humility and respect for Him. There are those in 21st century Science who regularly pour scorn on people of faith. And in doing so – they are also criticizing the brilliant minds who started their own Scientific disciplines all those centuries ago.

  • Forebears like Johannes Kepler, who in the 17th century perceived intelligent design in the mathematical precision of planetary motion and the laws governing it.
  • Forebears like James Clerk Maxwell who discovered electromagnetic theory – and who quoted the Bible at the entrance to his Cavendish Physics Laboratory in Cambridge.

Surely these men and many more besides deserve respect from the current thinkers of today?

Third and finally I call for humility and respect towards the One who has made our lives – and our space exploration possible. Who has given us a Universe to travel thru and to wonder at. Because, as Psalm 111 says in closing…

“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” Psalm 111:10, NIV

Mind the Gap

Mind the Gap sign on the edge of a London Underground Tube station's platform

I can’t help it – something inside of me cringes when I hear well-meaning Christian believers acting out as aggressive anti-evolution apologists. After all – come on! How insulting for the poor guy or girl, trying to do their Science job and understand how stuff works…only to get blasted by an un-called for, anti-evolutionary rant? I noticed a tweet from Professor Brian Cox once who expressed exasperation at being on the sharp end of a “Christian apologist” rant. I groan with Brian!

One reason people go into Science is because we love finding out how things work, and we love to understand things better. Right? I speak as a Computer Scientist, by the way, so I feel somewhat qualified to make the previous statement (even if my field might be regarded as particularly geeky!)

 

There’s something else that makes me cringe. It’s when I hear well-meaning believers in the theory of Darwinian Evolution (Common Descent and Natural Selection acting upon Random Biological Mutations) speak as if Darwin’s theory is as unassailable as the truth that our planet orbits the Sun. I mean…really?

We have empirical evidence about how the Universe works – we observe how it works. And we know a little bit about what holds it together. And we are starting to realize there’s a lot we don’t yet know. But does the Earth orbit the sun? Yes – sure – we can empirically prove it – much to the chagrin of the 17th century church!

But the same cannot be said of Darwinian Evolution. The media does a great job of presenting evolution as a done + proven deal. But behind closed doors – away from the foot lights and the spin doctors – the truth is quite different. Scientists committed to this Theory are still scouring the fabric of our planet for the evidence in the fossil record that Darwin assumed would prove his origin of life theory. But they are coming up short.

Don’t believe me? Just Google the phrase – “Cambrian Explosion”. Life didn’t appear in gradual increments. Life exploded onto the surface of our planet at a number of certain specific points in Earth’s history.  And I can say that with confidence because it’s what the fossil record has recorded. That’s our  empirical evidence. If we are talking about what is provable – rather than what we would like to believe (evolution) – then the evidence suggests that life just appeared. Fully formed – and with incredible amounts of information and complexity. And it all just appeared – delivered to planet earth – right out of the box with an amazing ability to adapt in minor ways to its current surroundings

 

Ah – and it’s this point that the well-meaning scientist (who doesn’t happen to believe in God) sighs and shakes their head.

You Christians – you are such God of the Gaps people! What do I mean by ‘God of the Gaps’? I mean that – Science studies something amazing (life) to learn about it. But people of faith aren’t hard workers – they are lazy. Rather than trying hard to find a natural explanation for the appearance of life – you just glibly blurt out “God did it”. That’s intellectually lazy.  

 

And the scientist who DOES believe in God responds.

I’m sorry – but you are mistaken. It is not laziness that points me to God. Rather – it is intellectual honesty and hard work and good Science. It is a willingness to accept a cause that goes beyond the hard-wired, natural forces of our closed universe.

  • The pre-programmed laws of physics create a perfect swirl of water as I empty my bathtub. They also create the wonder of snowflakes. There is natural, material beauty and artistry in creation.
  • But what we find in the building blocks of life is of a completely different order. The specified complexity and carefully crafted information processing systems we find in every tiny biological cell are mindbogglingly complex. Biological computers, if you will.

I don’t believe in a God of the Gaps. I believe in a God whose creative skill is becoming more and more evident as we learn more and more about our planet and the creatures that inhabit it. I see more evidence for God in each scientific discovery – not less evidence.

 

John Lennox, Professor of Mathematics at Oxford, and a Christian thinker has taken the response of the Christian a bit further. He says:

“Postulating an unobserved Designer is no more unscientific than postulating unobserved macro-evolutionary steps. It is surely very evident that ‘evolution of the gaps’ is at least as widespread as ‘God of the gaps’.”  — John C. Lennox

In other words – I’m a Christian. But I don’t believe in a God of the Gaps, mate. Ironically though, when you cling to Darwin’s Theory of Evolution…in spite of the current lack of empirical evidence…then you are evidently clinging to an Evolution of the Gaps!

 

Okay – I’m one of the faith filled Scientists. Yes – I believe in a Designer. I’m a Christian – so it makes perfect sense for me to ascribe the role of Designer to God. But don’t accuse me of wanting to stop Science. No way! What would be the point in that?

 

Just because smart guys designed computer architectures doesn’t mean I don’t have to work hard to understand what they came up with. That’s my job. And frankly – I get enjoyment and fulfillment out of doing it (sad I know).

In a similar way – just because God designed the cosmos and the life that lives in it – by means we currently don’t understand – doesn’t mean all Science should stop. Quite the opposite – lets enrich life by learning all we can using the minds he’s given us.

 

I don’t believe in a God of the Gaps. I don’t recommend you should either. I also don’t recommend you should believe in an Evolution of the Gaps!

Breaking Bad

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The end justifies the means – according to Walt.

 

Life hasn’t gone as it should have. He’s brilliant but unrecognized. His career began with such promise and yet his contemporaries have advanced far beyond him now, leaving him in a poorly paid teaching role. Oh – and in 18 months – he expects to be dead from cancer.

 

His family will be vulnerable when he’s gone – which is why he needs to make some serious cash to leave behind NOW. Even if it means breaking the law by making and selling drugs. . Yet his intentions are noble – right?

 

The end justifies the means. His means are breaking the law – the end will be financial security for his family. That is…according to Walt.

 

The truth of the matter tho – is that he’s not just breaking the law. He is being drawn in…changed. As he gets deeper into the criminal underworld…he is faced with choice after choice to become more and more like the bad people around him. He’s not just doing bad for a little while…he is becoming bad with no way out.

 

Tragically – he is alienating the family that he loves in the process. He is poisoning what little time he has left with them. Walt is poisoning the lives of people round about him. Like the very cancer that is eating at his body, Walt is becoming a cancer in his local community. He is becoming a destructive influence on so many lives…from his partner Jesse, to the users of his “product”.

 

Here’s the thing – the end NEVER justifies the means. The means matters as much as the end matters.

 

Whenever I  have to try to justify the means – it is because I am uncomfortable with the means. We instinctively know our actions are either morally wrong – or certainly dangerous.

 

And it is so easy to go there ourselves. I don’t think I am too different from Walt. I have such a fine tuned capacity for self-delusion. A little dabble here and there – it won’t hurt.  I am in control of this situation – I can opt out whenever I want to. Well – Walt’s story is an illustration of just what a dangerous delusion that is.

 

“Don’t let evil get the best of you; get the best of evil by doing good.”  Romans 12:21, The Message

 

God’s advice in all of this is – get real. If you play with fire then you will get burned. A little evil will eventually overcome us. The evil we so easily submit to in our lives will corrupt us. But the great thing about Christianity is this. The goodness and the love that God freely offers us will have positive trans-formative power on us. 

 

Have you ever noticed that – sometimes the kettle in your kitchen gets filled with an odd deposit called limescale? It is the result of minerals in your water supply. In some areas – the water is so hard and full of these minerals that they coat the heating element of the kettle. So we make a cup of coffee which ends up having nasty bits in it. This isn’t particularly nice to drink – and eventually the kettle will stop working all together.

But – the kettle doesn’t have to break. The coffee doesn’t have to be nasty. We can descale the kettle and keep it working properly. Of course – rather than descaling the kettle – most people today will simply throw the old one away and buy a fresh and new one.

 

But we can’t throw our hearts away and start afresh with new ones.

 

The little, self-justified, evil choices I make in my life will build up and deposit “limescale” in my heart. They will clog me up…and eventually get the better of me. But it doesn’t have to be so. I can descale my life. I do it by letting the goodness of God into the inside of my life…and let Him melt away the hardness that has formed there.

 

As he changes me on the inside – the quality of my actions also changes. People who allow God to descale their own hearts, become people who God uses to descale communities. They become positive change agents in the world. They become people who overcome evil by doing God empowered good. And that’s not hype or fantasy – it happens to ordinary people like you and me.

 

In the final analysis – however we might try to justify and argue – the choices we make matter. They have consequences – every single one. Consequences for us – and those around us. So surrender your heart to the one who loves you – who wants the best for you – and has the power to change you.

 

Don’t be misled: No one makes a fool of God. What a person plants, he will harvest. The person who plants selfishness, ignoring the needs of others—ignoring God!—harvests a crop of weeds. All he’ll have to show for his life is weeds! But the one who plants in response to God, letting God’s Spirit do the growth work in him, harvests a crop of real life, eternal life. Galatians 6:7-8, The Message

It’s OK to change our minds!

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Imagine the most hardened atheist – someone who utterly dismisses the mere possibility of the existence of God or a creator behind the Universe. We might not have to go very far to find that person – as it could well be us!

I guess one of the most public and vocal atheists today would be either Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris or Daniel Dennett. All great guys, I’m sure. And stridently atheist in their worldview.

Anthony Flew was their forerunner.

Mr Flew was the public, strident atheist of the mid 20th century. He died in 2010 aged 87, but during his life he spent much of his time proposing his anti-God position.

He was a contemporary of C S Lewis and J R R Tolkien, but was not convinced by their own faith. Rather he believed that talk about God was meaningless and Gods existence could not be proved either way. He engaged in countless public and private debates with people of faith where he stood firmly against any form of faith or belief in a creator. He dismissed the claims of the Bible. There was no God, according to Anthony Flew.

That is…until the mid 2000’s when suddenly his position began to change. He never publicly admitted to becoming a Christian. But he very clearly stated he had been mistaken in his atheism and that he had become a believer in God – in other words, a Theist.

What began to change his mind? Well – listen for yourself to this short interview.

Anthony Flew began his journey toward God when he finally admitted that the case for a Designer was just so great – that he couldn’t deny it any more. The deeper that Scientists looked into the nature and structure of the Universe – everything just REEKED of design! He decided that he was done with NOT following the evidence where it lead. Instead he just followed the breadcrumbs. There had to be – in Anthony Flew’s thinking – a creative intelligence behind all of life.

And so – before his death in 2010 – he stridently changed his position and took up the cause of arguing for the existence of a Designer of our Universe. He co-authored a book which has an inescapable title – “There Is A God”.

The internet’s reaction was scathing. People who didn’t take the time to read Mr Flew’s book, or listen to his reasons, cruelly denounced him as confused and senile. But does he sound that way in the video clip? Not at all – his sharp and incisive mind is very much in evidence.

Now – who knows whether he finally decided to believe in the God of the Bible. I hope so – because I personally feel that only Christianity makes historical and intellectual sense of the evidence that we find in human history.

Anyway – however Anthony Flew’s story really ended – it reminds me of this. Atheists can and do change their minds. And – it’s OK to change your mind.

“Beneficial Mutations” is a Contradiction in Terms

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Perhaps you’re reading this post on your laptop. Or maybe you’re using a phone or tablet? However you are reading – imagine something for me. What if the data in your device suddenly changes? The files on your hard drive…the apps on your phone…they began morphing. Now I don’t mean they instantly become something else. No – I’m talking about gradual slow change. Single bits of data start to flip…a number “1” becomes a number “3” instead. A “4” becomes a “5”…and so on. And let’s say…the change happens very slowly. Out of all of the gigabytes of data that make up the apps, the code, the operating system and the documents you have stored …a single digit flips every day. What do you think might happen?

Would the blog post or the essay you are writing begin to say something better than it did before (that’s a compelling fantasy, believe me). Would the operating system in your tablet begin to morph into a different but equally functional one?

I don’t think you need a degree in Computer Science to answer those questions with a shake of the head. Gadgets and anything with a microprocessor inside them are very sensitive objects. The software is carefully crafted by – probably – hundreds of engineers over decades of time. It is precisely aligned to do a job. And if something’s not right…your laptop and therefore your life is about to get very frustrating.  If you have ever accidently loaded the wrong driver or a virus into your laptop – you will know what I mean.

In my job I sometimes work with engineers who are designing flight computers to operate in the harsh environment of space. And they put an incredible amount of effort into designing their system to make sure that “1s” cannot turn into “5s” when cosmic rays blast the vehicle. Many software systems in space travel are designed to be self-diagnosing and self-correcting – because if it breaks down on the surface of Mars, there’s not a thing we can do about it!

What I am saying is – the specific information contained within a computer system is valuable and any random unforeseen changes to that information will degrade its function. And it will probably eventually break down as a result of the change.

Why am I bringing this fairly obvious conclusion to your attention today?

Because it strikes me that the popular (some would say undeniable) theory from Charles Darwin of Biological Evolution presents the same scenario in a different context. It proposes random mutations on biological systems. And it points to something called Natural Selection and says that this process will make sure the beneficial mutations are carried forward as animals adapt and grow into different types of animals. Over time.

Beneficial mutations? Isn’t that a contradiction in terms?

Now I grant you – organisms do vary over time based on their environment. Beak lengths, wing colours are well documented examples. Minor change…or minor evolution… can be observed within a class of creature. It’s observable because life is built so that it will adapt to survive. But what about gradual mutation from one class of animal to another?  (Darwin’s theory of Common Descent) I am skeptical and I think the phrase “Beneficial Mutation” is a contradiction in terms here. Why?

Well – I have two problems with Darwin’s theory. And frankly – I’m going to raise them whether it’s PC to do so or not!

FIRST – where did the original organisms come from? The fossil record seems to show that life began with very simple organisms. We know from recent study of simple single celled organisms that they contain an incredible amount of digital information and complex systems for processing that information and generating proteins to manage and control the organism. There’s a vast amount of digital code in simple organisms. Where did it come from? Why does it suddenly appear in the historical record? Evolution? I don’t think so because random change doesn’t create information – it degrades it.

SECOND – Following on from the simple organisms – suddenly a vast array of incredibly complex animals, all with different body plans, appear in the fossil record (a period often called the Cambrian explosion). The fossil record starts by presenting simple organisms…and then many years later in the record we are suddenly presented with a vast array of amazing new Cambrian fully formed animal fossils. Who wrote the code for them then? There certainly isn’t any evidence of transitions from a few simple forms to a vast array of fully functional complex animals! And nor would we expect there to be – because random change doesn’t create information – it degrades it.

Not only has no evidence of transitional forms been found – but Science has begun to understand more and more about life since Darwin’s day. Roy Davidson in the 1960s discovered that each animal inherits biological circuitry (Developmental Gene Regulatory Networks or dGRNs) when it is conceived. What is a dGRN? It’s a biological control system  – completely separate from the cell’s DNA – that ensures that the organism will grow two wings, two legs and a beak (if it’s a bird). These control systems are very specific to the beast in question. And what Roy found was that any minor change to this dGRN system will render the organism unviable…in other words mutation will kill it.  Just like what will happen to the tablet you are holding if its operating system software begins to randomly flip “1s” and “0s”.

If you are anything like me, we have gotten so used to hearing people say with authority that animals evolve from one physical form to another, we naturally accept it. They say that random mutations – guided by Natural Selection – move species forward over a long period of time.

Yet just because people say this with authority does not make it right.

I don’t buy it…not because I am a Christian (which I am) but because practical experience in life with our information rich Sat Navs, our Laptops and our Tablet Computers shows this theory to be naïve and improbable . I don’t buy it because complex information processing systems – and the information they contain – do not improve when the program randomly changes. They break down.

If information systems – electrical or biological – break down in the face of random change, then the mutations that Darwin was talking about couldn’t form new living creatures. Darwin’s mutations would lead to dead ends instead. So there would be no guiding job for Natural Selection to do.

“Beneficial mutations” is a contradiction in terms.

And it’s not just me saying this. Current Scientific discoveries presented by the likes of Origin Scientist Stephen C Meyer give real weight to this conclusion. A conclusion that applies to biology in the same way as it applies to our digital technology today.

Evolutionary biologists are fond of saying that “life gives the appearance of design.” Hey – so does my IPAD. Let’s at least consider the possibility that life looks designed because it is!