Two weeks ago, we looked at the argument—and responses to it—that certain cosmological constants are perfectly “fine tuned” for life, thus proving the existence of an intelligent designer. Now comes another rebuttal.
Researchers at the University of New South Wales poring over astronomy data have come to a new view on the issue of cosmological constants in the universe: simply put, they may not be so constant. If that’s true, does it doom the argument that key physical constants are “just right” for life?
The fine-structure constant, usually denoted alpha, indicates the strength of the electromagnetic force. Astrophysicist John Webb’s team, using data from the Keck Observatory and the Very Large Telescope, looked closely at distant galaxies and found that in one direction away from earth, alpha seemed to grow larger the farther they looked; in the other direction, alpha grew smaller and smaller.
Astronomers had noted some variation in alpha before, but the unique contribution of Webb’s team was looking in two directions and comparing results. Previous studies that found variation in alpha could not discern whether that variation occurred in space (as one moved farther from earth) or in time (since the light we observe represents some degree of astronomic history). If the variation were only due to time, however, alpha would fluctuate identically as one looked in any direction.
“When you look in one direction, you cannot distinguish between variation in space and variation in time,” explained team member Victor Flambaum. “Now there is nearly complete coverage of the sky. The conclusion is: it’s a variation in space, not in time.”
Some remain skeptical of the results, which have not yet been published in a peer-reviewed journal. “If history is a guide—and often it is not—the results of Webb et al. will turn out to be untenable,” said University of Aarhus science historian Helge Kragh, an expert on this research question.
But if confirmed, what do the results say about the origin of life on earth—and the so-called anthropic principle, which leverages the “just right” nature of such constants to argue for an intelligent designer? Flambaum called the question “a puzzle,” while Space.com deemed it a “major conundrum” that “seemed like too much of a coincidence.”
“Now we have an explanation. If fundamental constants vary in space, we just appear in the area of the universe where constants are good for us,” Flambaum explained. In other regions of the universe where alpha is different, life may never exist.
The researchers may think this puzzle has been solved, but even if their study results stand, their answer to the puzzle doesn’t. After all, so far it’s “only” our region of the universe that is “just right” for life—and that only adds to the argument that life on earth was not a natural accident but the result of divine, supernatural creation.
Is it a jackal or a wolf—or just another reminder of an original created “dog” kind?
Researchers studying the DNA of the Egyptian jackal, which had been classified as a type of golden jackal, have concluded that it is actually a relative of the grey wolf—and hence more closely related to Indian and Himalayan wolves than to golden jackals. The analysis caps off a long-running debate over whether the species, Canis aureus lupaster, was actually a jackal or a wolf.
The multinational team responsible for the analysis was inspired by a photograph of a “wolf-like animal” seen in Eritrea several years ago. The animal was supposedly a golden jackal, yet its features—as with certain other golden jackals—seemed more wolflike: “larger, more slender, and sometimes with a more whitish colouration.”
The team is planning to push for a formal reclassification of the species as a type of grey wolf, which previously were not known to inhabit mainland Africa. The researchers are also interested in another “intriguing” photograph showing a wolf in northern Senegal, where none had been reported before. Even more fascinating, “This wolf is hanging out with a family group of side-striped jackals. So this shows that there is complexity, not just in distribution but in sociality,” explained team member Claudio Sillero of the University of Oxford’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit.
For years, creationists have emphasized a “kinds” model of biology (and thereby established the field of baraminology). This model starts with the Bible’s description of God creating unique “kinds” of plants and animals (and man as distinct from any animal kind), then applies what we know about natural selection and various genetic processes to understand the biological diversity we observe today. Rather than all creatures descending from the same original organism—a “tree” model of life—all creatures descend from the progenitors of their kind—an “orchard” model. Thus, the whole range of canids, from domesticated dogs to wolves to jackals and beyond, constitutes the diversified members of the original “dog” kind. And the confusion over the taxonomic placement of the Egyptian jackal reminds us of this biological reality.
A marsupial frog from South America may not realize how special it is, but a team from Stony Brook University does.
Gastrotheca guentheri, one of a group of frogs known for carrying fertilized eggs in pouches, is the only ranine species known for sporting teeth on both upper and lower jaws. That trait is unusual because frogs are said to have been missing their lower teeth for some 200 million years.
For that reason, the quirk represents an apparent violation of Dollo’s Law, which states that traits that disappear in the course of evolution will never return. Study leader John Wiens explained, “The loss of mandibular teeth in the ancestor of modern frogs and their re-appearance in G. guentheri provides very strong evidence for the controversial idea that complex anatomical traits that are evolutionarily lost can re-evolve, even after being absent for hundreds of millions of years.”
Wiens’s team used a combination of fossil and genetic data to come to the conclusion that the lower jaw’s teeth disappeared approximately 230 million years ago, returning “within the past 20 million years.” The team has attempted to salvage Dollo’s Law by pointing out that the frog has always had teeth on its upper jaw, suggesting it was therefore less of a challenge for the teeth to re-appear on the lower jaw. And if we accepted the team’s story and timeline for the frog’s loss of teeth, we would agree: the genetic information for producing teeth would have been preserved, and therefore the “flip” of a “simple” genetic switch-of-sorts—not an improbable increase in information—could explain this so-called “evolution,” which only changed a frog with teeth into (you guessed it) a frog with teeth. And this still does not answer the question of how we got frogs from non-frogs or how we got frog experts from pond scum over millions of years.
Last May we covered research that suggested chimpanzees “provide special attention to loved ones before they die and grieve afterward,” which unsurprisingly prompted comparisons to human behavior.
New research follows up on the same topic, documenting how a chimpanzee mother in Zambia’s Chimfunshi Wildlife Orphanage Trust responded to the death of her infant. Mother chimpanzees develop close bonds with their offspring, carrying them for most of the first two years of their lives, and consequently researchers know a good deal about their normal interaction.
In this case, scientists from the trust, the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics, and Gonzaga University observed a mother chimpanzee whose infant had died. After carrying the body around for more than a day, the mother placed the infant on the ground and repeatedly held her fingers against the infant’s face and neck for several seconds. Eventually she carried the body to another group of chimpanzees who “investigated” the body. The following day the mother had apparently abandoned the infant’s body.
The researchers believe this was a “unique transitional period as the mother learned about the death of her infant,” with the institute’s Katherine Cronin explaining, “Whether a viewer ultimately decides that the chimpanzee is mourning, or simply curious about the corpse, is not nearly as important as people taking a moment to consider the possibilities . . . [of] the extent to which nonhuman primate understand death, and how they respond to it.”
We must disagree slightly, as “considering the possibilities” is inherently a more subjective and worldview-influenced act than a simple ethological observation. Is a chimpanzee “grieving” akin to human behavior? Or is this mother chimpanzee’s behavior not so unlike that of other non-human mammals? Accepting evolution—and therefore the idea that death is simply a condition we’ve evolved to respond to—should make one far more likely to identify this chimpanzee behavior as “proto-mourning.” By contrast, the Bible informs us that physical death is an intruder into God’s once-perfect creation, and therefore an enemy (1 Corinthians 15:26) that will one day be removed when Jesus Christ returns (Revelation 21:3–5). It also tells us how we can escape eternal death in hell and have eternal life with God (John 3:16).
More than one in ten high school biology teachers in the U.S. “advocate” creationist beliefs in the classroom. But that’s not the biggest news.
The Penn State University study, newly published in the journal Science, reports on the attitudes of 926 high school biology teachers toward evolution education. While some media outlets (such as LiveScience) have emphasized the portion of educators teaching creation views, most (such as ScienceDaily and the Washington Post) take a cue from the original press release and emphasize that many teachers (nearly three-fourths) are “reluctant to endorse evolution” in the classroom.
Study coauthor Michael Berkman, a political scientist at Penn State, blamed that reluctance on a “lack [of] knowledge and confidence to go in there and teach evolution.” Other commentators have debated whether insufficient education of science teachers is truly the problem, with University of Minnesota biologist Randy Moore (lead author of a study we reported on in May 2009) arguing,
“If someone wants to learn about evolution, it’s not hard to. It’s hardly a science education problem. Scientists think if teachers just take a class they will accept it, but many simply reject it.”
The study also located something of a silent majority among the teachers polled: roughly 60 percent who taught neither view enthusiastically, preferring to cautiously teach the minimum required evolution curriculum and avoid controversy by saying little else. According to the study authors, these teachers “tell students it does not matter if they really ‘believe’ in evolution, so long as they know it for the test.”
LiveScience spoke with Francis Eberle, executive director of the National Science Teachers Association, who criticized creation education in the classroom: “Science doesn’t deal with the human condition, like why we were here. That’s fine to be covering those, but not in the science classroom.” What Eberle seems not to realize is that evolution, too, makes claims about why humans are here (i.e., we’re here by accident with no objective purpose or meaning and no absolute morality)—exclusive claims that constitute a religious perspective on the question.
It’s certainly disappointing that even 13 percent of classrooms learning both sides of the origins issue is deemed “too much” by the high priests of evolution. Answers in Genesis wants Bible-believing science teachers to know and take advantage of what they can legally teach about creation in their classrooms. (For more on that topic, see Can Teachers Teach Creation Legally?) But we don’t want to force non-creationists to talk about creation, as they may intentionally or unintentionally misrepresent our views. What is ultimately more important is that Christian parents, pastors, and Sunday school teachers recognize that good origins education is rarely going to be found in the public school system (or even, sadly, in many Christian schools). The responsibility to teach children about Genesis, origins, and biblical authority should begin and primarily be in the home and church (and be reinforced in Christian schools).
Remember, if you see a news story that might merit some attention, let us know about it! (Note: if the story originates from the Associated Press, Fox News, MSNBC, the New York Times, or another major national media outlet, we will most likely have already heard about it.) And thanks to all of our readers who have submitted great news tips to us. If you didn’t catch last week’s News to Note, why not take a look at it now? See you next week!
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