Review of the meeting on “Is the Natural World Good or Bad?” October 24, 2020
David Snoke, University of Pittsburgh
The recordings are now available online of all the talks. To access the videos for free, if you are a CSS member, go to this link. You must be signed in with your account on the CSS website to go to this page. If you are not a CSS member, you can go directly to the video hosting site.
By all accounts that I have heard, this was one of the most fascinating CSS meetings in recent memory. For myself, having heard many of the arguments over the years on this type of issue, this meeting had many insights and scientific results that were new to me. If you didn’t catch it live, this one really is a must-see.
Jon Garvey’s talk was challenging to many participants, as many of us have been raised as Christians on the idea that the natural world is entirely “fallen”. Jon argued provocatively that Scripture doesn’t say that nature is “fallen” at all, although our relationship to it as people is. He made a convincing case that this teaching is relatively novel in Christian history, only predominant in the past 500 years or so, and we had some discussion about why this view arose. Renaissance? Reformation?
Stuart Burgess had fascinating details about his role as a senior design engineer for satellites for the European Space Agency. He pointed out that many biologists who write popular books are quick to dismiss certain elements of biological systems as bad design, who apparently have never actually designed anything or talked to real engineers. Some of the biological elements called bad design are actually ones that systems engineers value quite a bit and use in their work frequently. In fact, the trend is mostly that engineers seek to learn good design from biology. Stuart also raised the issue of living creatures that seem “well designed to kill.”
Fuz Rana gave us a very good understanding of a system often maligned as inefficient, namely the Rubisco enzyme used in distinguishing oxygen from carbon dioxide. In fact, these two simple molecules are nearly indistinguishable chemically, and Rubisco is doing its job at an optimal tradeoff of speed and accuracy. I’m pretty sure there is no synthetic way to do it better, that does not involve going to cryogenic temperatures, something obviously not an option for living systems.
Scott Minnich, by all accounts, stole the show with his talk on the black plague, presenting new, as-yet-unpublished results from his labs that show that the high mortality of the black plague can be traced back to a single mutation about 5000 years ago that caused the bacteria to lose their flagella. The human immune system is well-tuned to detect and destroy bacteria with flagella, but this mutation allows the black plague bacteria to slip under the radar and not be detected by the immune system. This finding is consistent with a view that originally, humans and parasites lived together in an ecological balance, but after the fall of humanity, some things were broken that led to imbalance and catastrophe. Scott’s work provides a strong argument for much human suffering as the result of devolution, not evolution, and also may help cure the black plague (e.g., prevent its use as a bioweapon). Not bad, Scott!
In my talk I focused on two topics. In the first, I argued that the classic “problem of evil” (how can an all-powerful and all-good God allow suffering) does not present a logical problem for the Christian, although there is much that we must accept humbly that God does not tell us. In the second part, I summarized some of the arguments in my book, that God not only created parasites and carnivores as part of his good world, but that in the rest of Scripture, he vaunts them as good, “bragging” about them, so to speak.
The panel discussion was far ranging, but one topic that comes to my mind is how our cringing at parasites may be in part due to a Gnostic/Platonist mindset that doesn’t accept that we live in an “earthy” creation with earthy bodies that are to some degree symbiotic with other organisms and not entirely under our own control.
October 24, 2020, Schedule (all times Eastern US time)
10:00 AM Jon Garvey, “Unfallen creation: the foundation for a biblical theology of nature”
Abstract: The thesis of God’s Good Earth is that what is often called the “traditional view” of a natural creation that fell because of human sin is neither well-supported by Scripture, nor was it ever a dominant Christian assumption until around the time of the Reformation. Leading Jewish, Patristic and mediaeval theologians often maintained the view that the natural world remains “very good,” as God formed it, and therefore they did not even have a concept of “natural evil.” Furthermore, the rather pessimistic view of nature’s goodness expressed by Charles Darwin and his scientific successors can be seen in terms of their inheriting the newer “cosmic fall” Christian view whilst secularizing it, assuming natural evil and explaining it through indifferent physical forces rather than human sin. Recovering the earlier view of the non-human creation as God’s obedient instrument for governing his world opens the way to considering a theology of nature more consistent with biblical teaching on God’s sovereignty and providence.
Bio: Born in Guildford, England, Jon Garvey studied Medicine at Pembroke College, Cambridge University, and theology at the University of Gloucester. Since 2011 his blog, The Hump of the Camel, has explored the theology of creation, attracting an extensive readership across the world, and in January 2019 Cascade published his first book, God’s Good Earth: the Case for an Unfallen Creation, followed in 2020 by The Generations of Heaven and Earth: Adam, the Ancient World and Biblical Theology. Jon lives in southwest England, is married with three adult children and five granddaughters, is a Baptist elder, and plays guitar and saxophone semi-professionally when plagues permit.
10:50 AM Stuart Burgess, “Defining ‘good design’ and ‘bad design’ with a case study of the recurrent laryngeal nerve”
Abstract: Various examples of claimed ‘bad design’ in nature have been given including the recurrent laryngeal nerve, panda’s thumb, human eye and human throat. However, the bad design argument is often based on the false assumption that sub-systems have just one function to perform. In reality, the optimal design of sub-systems involve meeting not just a main function but also several secondary functions and constraints. When the complete set of design requirements are considered, the best design can be quite different to what one would have assumed when considering just the main function. The claims about bad design also often involve false assumptions about how designers make choices. The presentation will define the difference between good and bad design. It will also argue that the homology we observe in nature is what would be predicted based on engineering design principles. A case study of the recurrent laryngeal nerve is used to illustrate the arguments.
Bio: Stuart Burgess is Professor of Engineering Design at Bristol University, UK, where he served three times as Chairman of the Department of Mechanical Engineering with 700 students. He is currently external examiner at Cambridge University, UK. He has published over 170 research papers on the science of design in engineering and biology. He has received several national and international awards for design including: the Turners Gold Medal for spacecraft design; Wessex Scientific Medal for bio-inspired design; Mollins Design Prize for machine design (presented by British Minister of State for Trade and Industry); and the 2019 IMechE Clayton Prize for the biggest contribution to mechanical engineering science in the UK. He led the design of the bicycle transmission for the British Cycling Team in the 2016 Rio Olympics that helped lead to six gold medals in that event.
12:30 PM Fazale Rana, “Perfect Imperfections”
Abstract: Biochemical systems have the undisputable appearance of design. The question at the center of the intelligent design/creation/evolution controversy relates to the source of the design. Is it the handiwork of a Creator? Or, is it the product of unguided, evolutionary processes? Is the design authentic? Or, is it only apparent? Many biologists maintain that life’s origin, design and diversity are best explained as the outworking of evolutionary processes. As evidence for this view, they often point to so-called bad designs in biology. Why would an all-powerful, all-knowing and all-good Creator produce a world characterized by imperfections? In this talk, I explore the typical responses offered by Christian theists to the challenge from dysteleology and briefly discuss the strengths and weaknesses of these approaches. In turn, I present a framework that provides the means to interpret “bad” designs from a creation model/intelligent design perspective and illustrate this framework using select examples of often cited imperfections in biochemical systems, including the enzyme Rubisco, futile cycles in metabolism and the inefficiency of protein synthesis.
Bio: Fazale “Fuz” Rana serves as vice president of research and apologetics at Reasons to Believe, an organization dedicated to demonstrating the compatibility of science and Christianity. He earned a Ph.D. in chemistry with an emphasis in biochemistry at Ohio University and conducted postdoctoral research of cell membranes at the Universities of Virginia and Georgia. He spent seven years as a senior scientist at Procter & Gamble and has coauthored articles published in several peer-reviewed journals. Today, Fuz is author of multiple books, including Humans 2.0, and speaks on evidence for creation from biochemistry, genetics, and human origins.
1:20 PM Scott A. Minnich, “Does the evolution of Yersinia pestis (plague) virulence provide insights into theodicy?”
Abstract:Darwin had a problem reconciling natural design with a benevolent Creator and he used the parasitic ova-positing wasps (Ichneumonidae) and their caterpillar victims as an example. Yersinia pestis, the etiologic agent of bubonic plague, poses an even greater problem in the arena of ‘natural evil’. It is the most virulent bacterial pathogen for man and animals. Untreated, mortality rates can reach as high as 80%. There have been three plague pandemics in recorded history: The Justinian pandemic of the 6th Century; The Black Death of the 14th century; and the recent pandemic of the 19th-20th century. Combined, these pandemics have killed an estimated 300 million people. What makes this bacterium so deadly? Genomic studies show Y. pestis evolved relatively recently (~6,000 years) from its progenitor, Y. pseudotuberculosis, a self-limiting human pathogen with negligent mortality rates. This idea has been further strengthened by genomic reconstructions of Y. pestis from DNA isolated from Bronze Age and Neolithic human skeletons. Evolution to ‘high pathogenicity’ involved the acquisition of suites of genes by lateral gene transfer, and surprisingly, as we and others have shown, involves genetic loss. Hence, it can be argued that the ‘aboriginal’ design of the plague organism was avirulent. This scenario also applies to Darwin’s example of the Ichneumonidae.
Bio: Scott A. Minnich received his BS in Bacteriology and Public Health from Washington State University (1975), a MS in Microbiology at the University of Idaho (1977) and a Ph.D. in Microbiology at Iowa State University (1980). He pursued postdoctoral studies in molecular biology and microbial genetics at Purdue and Princeton before joining the faculty at University of Idaho in 1989. Minnich’s research is centered on the molecular pathogenesis of Gram-negative bacteria. These efforts are focused on host-parasite interactions, evolution of virulence, and novel strategies for vaccine production. Models employed for this work include Y. pestis, Y. enterocolitica, and E. coli O157:H7. From October 2003 to May 2004, he served as a subject matter expert with the Chemical Biological Intelligence Support Team (CBIST) Detachment 3 with the Iraq Survey Group headquartered in Baghdad.
2:10 PM David Snoke, “Considering the Problem of Evil”
Abstract: In this talk I will consider the “problem of evil” as it is often used as a challenge to Christianity. In the first half of my talk, I will argue that while there is “mystery” involved in our thinking about this question, there is no self-contradiction or violation of logic in the traditional Christian view of good and evil. In the second part of my talk, I will summarize some of the arguments of my book, A Biblical Case for an Old Earth (Baker, 2006), that many of the things we think of as “natural evil,” such as animal death, carnivores, and parasites, are not “evil” at all in the biblical world view. Finally, I will discuss what is meant by the “curse” and the “groaning” of the natural world in the Bible.
Bio: David Snoke is professor of physics at the University of Pittsburgh. He received his bachelor’s degree in physics from Cornell University and his Ph.D. in physics from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and did postdoctoral studies as an Alexander von Humboldt Fellow at the Max Planck Institute for Condensed Matter Physics in Stuttgart, Germany. He heads an experimental optical spectroscopy lab funded that focuses on novel quantum mechanical effects in optics. He has authored over 160 scientific papers and has published five scientific books, including four with Cambridge University Press. In 2006 he was named a Fellow of the American Physical Society “for his pioneering work on the experimental and theoretical understanding of dynamical optical processes in semiconductor systems.” He has long written and spoken on the integration of Christianity and science at numerous universities and meetings.
3:00 PM Panel discussion of the speakers
Moderated by Mark Tabladillo
Bio:Mark Tabladillo is an apologist in Atlanta GA, and is a presenter and Atlanta chapter officer with Reasons to Believe. Mark has also been a presenter for the Perspectives on the World Christian Movement class. Mark has a professional career in data science, and his professional work has taken him to Europe, Asia and Africa. He has taught with Georgia Institute of Technology, Brenau University and the University of Phoenix.
We are excited to announce our upcoming one-day seminar slated for this coming Saturday, October 24, from 10:00 AM to 4:00 PM Eastern US time. The title will be “Is the natural world good or bad?” and will address the general question of whether nature is “fallen,” and if so, what that means. Many Christians have grown up with the teaching that nature is basically a terrible thing, not “very good” as it was at Creation; many who argue for evolution also give a negative picture of the natural world as “red in tooth and claw”. We will consider this from both a theological/biblical perspective and a scientific perspective.
We will have five speakers, with a round-table discussion:
Jon Garvey, author of God’s Good Earth: The Case for an Unfallen Creation
Stuart Burgess, professor of engineering, University of Bristol, discussing the “bad design” argument (a.k.a. the “Panda’s Thumb” argument) and whether some creatures are designed to kill
Fuz Rana, of Reasons to Believe, familiar to many of us as a frequent CSS speaker, on “Perfect Imperfections”
Scott Minnich, professor of microbiology, University of Idaho, on “Yersinia pestis (the Plague) as a paradigm to address the question of Natural Evil”
myself (Dave Snoke), on the general question of the Problem of Evil, and COVID
Given the great success our our web-only format last April, we will use the same technology to bring this meeting as well. Information about how to register will be coming in future newsletters. One advantage of this technology is that we can easily have two speakers from the UK!
Details on how to register online will be posted in the near future.
Another professor argues that math has no objective truth. See this link. So far, this kind of attack on math and logic as arbitrary Western constructs is a minority view of extreme postmodernists, but it seems to be growing.
Will Amazon clutter the night sky with thousands of mini-satellites? See this link.
A museum display says that people of color cannot be expected to think scientifically. No, this was not published by white supremacists, but by the national African American History Museum, in a graphic that explained that such things as thinking logically, using the scientific method, and working hard are part of “white culture.” The graphic was removed after criticism, but in my experience represents a line of thinking very much in the mainstream, which does not so much want discourage people of color from doing science (though this would certainly have that effect), but rather to discourage all types of people from seeing science and logic as universally valid. See this link.