Review of the meeting on “Is the Natural World Good or Bad?” October 24, 2020
David Snoke, University of Pittsburgh
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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Scott Minnich, by all accounts, stole the show with his talk on the black plague, presenting new, as-yet-unpublished results from his labs that show that the high mortality of the black plague can be traced back to a single mutation about 5000 years ago that caused the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.