Amid the feverish search for extrasolar planets that could harbor life, a scientist at the Harvard–Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics has spoken up about what seems obvious to us: the earth is uniquely suited for life.
The center’s Howard Smith is an astrophysicist who, according to his website, is a “traditional and observant Jew” interested in the relationship between science and faith.
Whether those beliefs have led Smith to be more critical of the methodological atheism that permeates modern astronomy is unclear. What is clear, however, is that Smith is taking a stand against the growing group of scientists and laymen who essentially take it on faith that extraterrestrials are out there. (We reported on such attitudes six and seven weeks ago.)
In a new analysis of 500 exoplanets discovered so far, Smith concludes that these other planets are even more diverse and less habitable than was once expected—making earth even more unique than some believed. “We have found that most other planets and solar systems are wildly different from our own,” Smith explained. “They are very hostile to life as we know it.” (National Geographic News reports this week on more threats to the habitability of exoplanets.)
Granted, current techniques for detecting exoplanets mean that the easiest ones to find are those least like earth: massive and super-hot, orbiting extremely close to their host stars. Astronomers hope more powerful telescopes will help them detect planets more similar to our own. But Smith points out that even if alien life exists, communication would be restricted to aliens on nearby planets—and would still take years to exchange messages.
What repeatedly catches our attention is the confidence so many astronomers have in their belief that alien life-forms exist—a confidence that defies the evidence. That’s why it’s refreshing to hear a well-qualified astronomer challenge the status quo—and remind us of earth’s uniqueness.
Don’t let the bedbugs bite—or evolve.
New studies of bedbug genes offer the latest supposed example of evolution in action. The Wall Street Journal reports that the “irritating pests . . . are quickly evolving to withstand the pesticides used to combat them.” Alarmingly, the creatures are now able to survive pesticide applications a thousand times greater than what was lethal just a decade ago. In New York City, bedbugs have become an estimated 250 times more resistant to typical pesticides than are bedbugs in Florida.
University of Sheffield bedbug expert Michael Siva-Jothy claims the resistance “has evolved very recently,” while University of Massachusetts toxicologist John Clark argues that “insect resistance is nothing more than sped-up evolution.” But is it so?
One study, conducted by Ohio State University entomologists, focused on the biological process by which bedbugs turn toxic pesticides into harmless substances. Bedbugs exposed to pesticides show substantial genetic “activity” among genes that control the enzymes that catalyze the reactions that break down the pesticides. Another study, conducted at Virginia Tech, showed that genetic changes over time may be increasing the width of the bedbug exoskeleton, helping the bugs keep pesticides out.
But are these changes actually “evolution”? As in the oft-misrepresented case of microbial resistance to antibiotics, a bait and switch (perhaps inadvertent) takes place: evolution subtly goes from being a synonym for “change” to being a synonym for “progress.” The change in how susceptible bedbugs are to pesticides can be explained entirely as a consequence of selection effects. Starting with an initial bedbug population of high genetic diversity, including some bedbugs with the “right” enzymic processes and others with thicker exoskeletons, treatments of pesticide will decrease the life expectancy and ability to reproduce of those bedbugs that lack the right enzymic processes or thicker exoskeletons. Over time, the bedbug population as a whole develops greater resistance to pesticide simply because the bedbugs that survive are all descendants of those that already had greater resistance.* Mutations may also be involved, but the resistance can be explained by mutations that distort or reduce the bedbugs’ genetic information, rather than mutations that add new information (which have never been observed).
Yes, bedbug populations are changing, apparently in response to increased use of pesticides as they spread. But this change doesn’t provide evidence for progressive genetic changes that lead to new, more sophisticated life-forms.
When considered alongside humans and chimps, the orangutan is the genomic “odd man out.” Is that because it hasn’t evolved as quickly?
Thanks to research led by Washington University in St. Louis geneticist Devin Locke, the orangutan joins the growing list of creatures whose genomes have been fully sequenced. Because that list includes humans and chimpanzees, Locke’s team didn’t miss the chance to place the genetic results in the evolutionary framework.
The biggest “surprise”? While evolutionists believe orangutans split from the lineage that would lead to humans and chimps some twelve to sixteen million years ago, the genetic results indicate that orangutan genes have evolved far more slowly than chimps’ or humans’. While some researchers have tried to link this differential rate of change to higher intelligence in chimps (and humans), Locke points out that orangutans are also quite intelligent.
ScienceNOW also reports (as does ScienceDaily) on a study out of Aarhus University that shows that parts of the human genome are more similar to the orangutan genome than to the chimpanzee genome. (Though this would be no surprise to evolutionists who think we are more closely related to orangutans than to chimps.) “[H]umans and chimpanzees have evolved separately for millions of years,” the report claims. “In the process, chimps for mysterious reasons lost some orangutan DNA that humans retained.”
If we forgo the need to stuff orangutans’ genetic data into the framework of evolution, a different picture appears. The debate over whether humans are more closely related to chimps or orangutans breaks down if humans were created uniquely, and the apparently contradictory similarities we have to both creatures can be seen as God’s selective, purposive re-use of certain design features. Apparent differences in the rate of genetic change also evaporate; without the need for a common ancestor, we have no reason to believe chimp and orangutan genomes diverged from the same starting point. Therefore the differences need not be seen as a tally of evolutionary changes, but instead can be understood as, for the most part, the unique genetic structure God gave these animals at creation.
As we saw in item #2 (above), a major fault line between creationists and evolutionists concerns the appearance of novel genetic information in nature. What does the latest research say about what’s supposed to be the driving force of evolution?
Perhaps it’s best if we begin by quoting the opening paragraph of the University of Arizona press release on the research:
Some individuals are better adapted to a given environment than others, making them more likely to survive and pass on their genes to future generations. But exactly how nature creates variation in the first place still poses somewhat of a puzzle to evolutionary biologists.
If new genetic information—which would be required to build working eyes where there are none, for example—does not occur in nature, then evolution is stuck in the water. Even if natural selection allows populations to “evolve” as the fittest propagate more effectively than others, what happens when only the fittest remain?
For evolutionists, the solution comes in the form of mutations: mistakes that occur in gene replication that introduce new, “mutant” variants of creatures. If a mutation confers a reproductive advantage, the mutant creature survives and propagates itself, eventually taking hold in the population. Or so the story goes.
The problem for evolutionists is that the only beneficial mutations ever observed by humans do not add new information to the genome; they merely reshuffle or, sometimes, delete genetic information. That may still lead to a mutant creature, but it’s quite the opposite of the changes Darwin had in mind. Rather than fish gaining weight-bearing limbs and lungs, commonly cited examples of “evolution” have cave fish losing their eyes. Obviously, such a process could go on forever and fish would never turn into philosophers; fish would continue to be fish, being at most an “ultra-simplified” fish.
University of Arizona biologists Joanna Masel and Etienne Rajon have taken a closer look at the process that results in mutations. Their research appears in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. They note that if mutations never happened, organisms would only have limited ways to respond to environmental changes. On the other hand, mutations pose dangers, and organisms that do not limit this danger will soon die out. But then again, limiting the dangers of mutations—through biological mechanisms that “proofread” replicated genes to eliminate errors—carries a cost.
Through the use of a mathematical model and accompanying computer simulation, Masel and Rajon find that the optimal biological behavior is something they call “cryptic variation.” In cryptic variation, mutations are not immediately repaired; instead, a process of natural selection (“pre-selection”) occurs within the cell, and mutated genes that are destructive fail to be copied further.
“Pre-selection puts that cryptic variation in a state of readiness," Masel explained. “One could think of [it] as natural selection going on behind the scenes, weeding out variations that are going to be catastrophic, and enriching others that are only slightly bad or even harmless. Whatever is left after this process of pre-selection has to be better.”
The idea is certainly interesting, but it fails to address the creationist critique. First, consider the astounding complexity that already had to exist in the genome to enable such sophisticated proofreading processes (let alone every other crucial cellular process). What enabled the regulation of mutations, encouraging only the best to propagate, before this system evolved? Second, such an ideal regulatory mechanism doesn’t actually explain how complex, working mutations could be produced; this is presumably left up to the workings of chance, such that (the evolutionists presume) over millions of years novel, information-adding mutations do occur. But, third, even if that is a possibility, reasonable estimates of the rate of mutations and the likelihood of generating information-adding mutations may show that evolution would have had too little time to generate the complexity we see today. Further (fourth), no such information-adding mutations have been observed in nature.
It is also not clear what assumptions went into the scientists’ model, and how accurately or inaccurately those assumptions and the model reflect reality. Besides, even if such a scenario were theoretically and empirically plausible, does that mean God couldn’t have created supernaturally if He wanted to?
Carnivorous plants may seem, at first, to be a puzzling challenge to creationists’ claim that there was no need for death in nature as God designed it.
On closer investigation, however, many of the plants reveal ways they can gain nutrition without preying on animals. For example, last year we reported on the giant montane pitcher plant, which had been rumored to swallow up animals as large as rat-sized tree shrews. Closer research showed no support for the rumors, and instead scientists found that the pitcher plants may gain most nutrients by collecting the excrement of tree shrews. Additionally, the researchers suggested certain other types of pitcher plants may gather nutriment from bat feces.
A new study has confirmed that suggestion—and has gone a step farther. While rumors held that pitcher plants sometimes ate bats, the reality is that the bats make a home in the plants’ pitchers, gaining shelter in exchange for defecating in the plants.
A team led by Ulmar Grafe of the University of Brunei Darussalam investigated Nepenthes rafflesiana elongata pitchers, “consistently” finding Hardwicke’s woolly bats (Kerivoula hardwickii) inside. The bats roost above the pitchers’ digestive fluids, and the pitchers do not capture the bats, instead absorbing nutrients from bat excrement. The bats seek the pitchers because the insides are kept free of parasites.
It’s difficult, to say the least, for us to imagine exactly what God’s original, perfect creation would have been like. But the world around us does offer clues. Starting with Scripture, then proceeding through the lens of careful research, we can imagine a world in which what are now “carnivorous” plants subsist entirely by recycling the waste products of other animals—no death needed.*
On a related note, a new dermatological study provides evidence that the sap of a common weed can eliminate certain skin cancers. Is it another glimpse of the harmony in nature as God originally designed it?
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