Have no fear: the death star is not there.
Nemesis, the death-dealing star no one has ever seen, was invented to explain the “perceived periodicity of mass extinctions on Earth.” Nemesis is supposed to have regularly disturbed the Oort cloud—the purported birthplace of comets—causing the Oort cloud to periodically spew forth a hail of comets peppering the earth and killing things—lots of things.
The “death star” idea came about when secular geologists were trying to explain the fossil layers of the geologic column. Believing these massive burials to have occurred over long ages of time, they interpreted the fossil layers as mass extinctions and sought a cause. When the idea of a dinosaur-killing Yucatan asteroid impact became popular in the 1980s, scientists naturally looked to close encounters from outer space to explain other apparent extinction events.
Because statistics suggested a periodic increase in frequency of cratering, both on earth and the moon, Nemesis was born—at least in the minds of some. But a statistical analysis from the Max Planck Institute suggests the whole thing was much ado about nothing. Bayesian statistics—an analysis which attempts to predict future events based on previous occurrences—indicate there was never a periodic increase in impacts after all.
“There is a tendency for people to find patterns in nature that do not exist,” said study author Coryn Bailer-Jones. “Unfortunately, in certain situations traditional statistics plays to that particular weakness.”
But if this information puts your mind at ease, according to Bailer-Jones, it really shouldn’t. Instead of a periodic increase over the past 250 million years, he suspects “the impact rate, as judged by the number of craters of different ages, increases steadily.”
With complete confidence, Bailer-Jones says the impact rate is either increasing, or it isn’t. He explains that since it is easier to find newer craters than older ones, the increase may be an illusion. On the other hand, “There are analyses of impact craters on the Moon, where there are no natural geological processes leading to infilling and erosion of craters, that point towards just such a trend.”1 The jury is still out on that one.
So what are we to make of all this? Well, in the first place, the Nemesis-story was concocted to explain a series of assumptions which all began with rejection of the global Flood. This 19th century trend toward biblical compromise, chronicled by Dr. Terry Mortenson in The Great Turning Point, rejected the biblical idea of God’s catastrophic judgment and replaced it with uniformitarian thinking (2 Peter 3:3-6 warned Christians to expect this turn of events). Without a global Flood to explain the geologic column, the column had to be interpreted as a timeline of mass extinction events.
But the “death star” story drew from another fanciful idea, the notion of the Oort cloud. As secular scientists over the past couple of centuries kept pushing back the age of the universe farther and farther, they realized the universe had outgrown the lifespan of comets, which naturally melt away with time. Therefore the Oort cloud was invented as the mythical birthplace of comets at the outer reaches of our sun’s gravitational influence. The Oort cloud has never been observed.
The death star was simply a way of pulling the two stories together to make them explain a problem that we know from a biblical understanding of the world was never a problem anyway.
Building blocks in space rocks—the well-spring of life?
The verdict is in: the “building blocks of life” are found in meteorites. About five percent of meteorites harbor organic (carbon-containing) compounds. Whenever organic molecules are found in these rocks, investigators must consider whether the material really came from space or hopped aboard after arrival on earth. Goddard Space Flight Center’s new study provides good evidence that molecules like DNA’s components are genuine meteorite baggage.
DNA and RNA, which contain chains of nucleobases, are the large molecules in which blueprints for living things are encoded. “People have been discovering components of DNA in meteorites since the 1960’s, but researchers were unsure whether they were really created in space or if instead they came from contamination by terrestrial life,” said Dr. Michael Callahan. “For the first time, we have three lines of evidence that together give us confidence these DNA building blocks actually were created in space.”
Callahan’s team analyzed a dozen carbon-containing meteorites, most from Antarctica and Australia. They found four kinds of nucleobases. Two of the nucleobases, adenine and guanine, are found in DNA. Two others, hypoxanthine and xanthine, are biologically significant.
The presence of similar compounds without a significant role in terrestrial biochemistry, however, bolstered belief that the nucleobases were not contaminants. The team found three kinds of nucleobase analogs—molecules with structures resembling nucleobases.
“You would not expect to see these nucleobase analogs if contamination from terrestrial life was the source, because they're not [generally] used in biology,” said Callahan. “However, if asteroids are behaving like chemical ‘factories’ cranking out prebiotic material, you would expect them to produce many variants of nucleobases, not just the biological ones, due to the wide variety of ingredients and conditions in each asteroid.”
Additional confirmation that the organic compounds were native to the meteorites came from analysis of soil and ice samples from the regions where the meteorites were found. The terrestrial samples contained only minimal amounts of the biologically significant compounds and none of the nucleobase analogs.
Finally, investigators found they could synthesize “an identical suite” of these organic compounds in the laboratory from non-biological starting materials—hydrogen cyanide, ammonia, and water—compounds known to exist in space. “This provides a plausible mechanism for their synthesis in the asteroid parent bodies, and supports the notion that they are extraterrestrial,” said Callahan.
Evidence is good that the same kinds of molecules found in DNA do get synthesized in space. We discussed a similar situation regarding amino acids in the Tagish lake meteorite.
Another recent study has found some compounds commonly involved in glucose metabolism in a meteorite. As with the amino acids and the nucleobases, molecules that can be manufactured by cellular enzymes can be made by other methods in the laboratory—or in a meteorite.
Evolutionary scientists are ever on the lookout for some way to explain the leap from non-life to life. The logical first step, from their worldview, would be to find a source of “prebiotic” substances—the “building blocks of life”—and assume that given enough time those substances randomly assembled themselves into living organisms. The idea of meteorites “seeding” life on earth is very attractive to those who believe in “molecules-to-man” evolution.
The same chemical processes operate on earth and in meteorites. This in no way indicates that meteorites supplied the “prebiotic” seeds for life on earth. In other words, finding “building blocks of life” in meteorites does not prove the building blocks for life on earth came from outer space. And even if a vat of “prebiotic” molecules were allowed to sit in the sun, there is no known mechanism by which the building blocks could assemble themselves into a meaningful code containing instructions and the machinery to manufacture things. Beyond that, the actual “spark” that makes an organized group of structures alive remains a complete mystery to science. And of course, this ultimately just raises the question of where the “outer space” material came from anyway.
The Bible tells us that God spoke the earth into existence. On the third, fifth, and sixth days of Creation week, He created the living components of His creation. He made the sun, moon, and stars on the fourth day. Genesis specifies the God made Adam from the dust of the ground. The chemicals may have a great deal in common with the rocks in outer space, but God did not require a space nebula to supply His raw materials.
Giant crested rat painted with unpalatable poison sends predators packing.
The African crested rat, 14 inches long, would make a hearty meal for predators were it not for its well-advertised deterrent. Zoologist Jonathan Kingdon of Oxford grew up in Africa and well knew the furry rat’s distasteful reputation. His research has unmasked the rat’s secret to success in a hostile world. Poison!
The crested rat is not equipped with its own poison but instinctively knows where to obtain a potent supply. The rat chews Acokanthera schimperi tree bark, which contains a poisonous cardenolide compound. This drug closely resembles ouabain, an ingredient in arrow poison.2
The crested rat’s adaptation does not end with instinctive knowledge of where to get a poison supply. Kingdon’s team discovered that a strip of unique hairs along the rat’s back are hollow and porous with a wick-like center. The rat chews the bark and then licks the spit onto those hairs. Locked and loaded, the rat is ready to arch its back in fair warning.
Although the poison can kill in sufficient amounts, the rat’s enemies usually learn their lessons without suffering lethal effects. “It isn't really designed to kill. If it killed every time nothing would ever learn that this is distasteful,” Kingdon said.“The way it really works is that you go away and you recover from a terrible experience and you never, ever invite that experience again.” Kingdon recalls seeing a dog quivering in fear when faced with the prospect of a repeat encounter.
The rat is, for unknown reasons, immune to the poison’s effects. “The rats should drop dead every time they chew this stuff,” Kingdon adds.
How did the crested rat acquire these handy adaptations? Kingdon says, “This is an extraordinary thing to have evolved. . . .Evolution has mimicked something that hunters do. . . .[The crested rat] is borrowing from the plant just as the hunters are borrowing from the very same plant.”
Defense-attack structures (DAS) present a challenge for both evolutionists and creationists. From the evolutionary perspective, optimally located hairs structured to wick up poison, instinctive knowledge of how to use the poison, and immunity to the poison must all evolve at the same time in order for natural selection to select only these particularly gifted giant rats for survival. The concept of irreducible complexity is inescapable.
Creationists should only accept biblically consistent explanations. God created a good world without death. Sin brought a curse upon it. Biblical explanations for DAS fall into two main categories. Some DAS are modifications of abilities originally designed for other functions before the curse of sin entered the world. Other DAS, like thorns, were introduced by God to keep things in balance in the fallen world. Natural selection acting on the variations and mutations within the genome has likely acted in both of these areas to allow the best equipped organisms to survive.
Without detailed knowledge of the original created kind to which the crested rat belonged in the pre-Fall world, we can only guess at the history of its DAS. But we can see that an omniscient God equipped this animal with intricate adaptations to survive in a hostile world.
Protein degradation purported to peer into the past
Amino acid geochronology, a forty-year-old technique with limited application, has now been expanded to plumb the mysteries of the Ice Age thanks to an interdisciplinary British study of the snail. What do snails, amino acids, and ice ages have to do with each other?
Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins. In living organisms they are present only in one of two mirror-image forms. After death, those amino acids undergo racemization, no longer maintaining their single form but becoming a mixture. This process happens more slowly in the cold. The racemization rate varies not only with temperature but also with humidity, acidity, and characteristics of the matrix in which the amino acids are preserved. Because amino acid dating depends heavily on environmental conditions, it can only be used when the environmental conditions are actually and exactly known.
The amino acid degradation rate can vary dramatically in decomposing materials and in substances containing catalytic minerals. Therefore, the researchers sought and found a protected protein shelter in the operculum of fossilized snails. (The operculum is the “lid” on the shell opening.) Dr. Kirsty E. H. Penkman, lead author, explains, “The amino acids are securely preserved within calcium carbonate crystals of the opercula. This crystal cage protects the protein from external environmental factors, so the extent of internal protein degradation allows us to identify the age of the samples. In essence, they are a protein time capsule.”
Because the crystalline structure protects the amino acids from extraneous influences, the team is confident that only temperature changes have influenced that rate of racemization. Therefore, they match up amino acid racemic ratios to the “known” environmental history regarding the Quaternary Period in which the “last” ice age occurred. They then match whatever fossilized plants and animals and even human anthropological debris that are found near the snails to the corresponding “ice age” or “interglacial period.”
Penkman explains, “This framework can be used to tell us in greater detail than ever before how plants and animals reacted to glacial and interglacial periods, and has helped us establish the patterns of human occupation of Britain, supporting the view that these islands were deserted in the Last Interglacial period.”
The racemic ratio data obtained from 470 snail fossils correlated with stratigraphic data obtained by other means. Therefore the method is asserted to be a reliable way to link the two sorts of information. In other words, because the amino acid degradation varied according to the layer the sample came from, the researchers are assuming that those samples came from particular “ice ages” or “interglacial periods.”
The problem with this new technique lies in its foundational assumptions. All time-measuring techniques must be calibrated against a reliable standard. Here, the protein-based chronometer is calibrated according to uniformitarian assumptions about earth’s icy past. In other words, each degradation ratio corresponds to a particular layer, and the dates claimed for that layer are then assigned to the degradation ratio.
The Quaternary Period of earth’s history is believed by secular geologists to be the past 2.6 million years. (They maintain that “snowball earth” underwent a series of very long ice ages spread over billions of years but assert that a more recent cycle of ice ages and interglacial periods occurred in the Quaternary Period.) They believe that humans evolved around 190,000 years ago and endured some of this icy time. They say that the last glacial period ended about 10,000 years ago. The evidence of Ice Age glacial recession seen in the world today is assigned to this final phase.
Since uniformitarian ideas about geology preclude the possibility of a recent catastrophic global Flood3 and one single Ice Age triggered by it, secular geologists propose that multiple ice ages have happened. Their presuppositions about the earth’s age are used to interpret ice cores from Greenland and Antarctica, deciding how thick each year’s ice accumulation is. Since oxygen isotope ratios vary according to temperature when oxygen gets trapped, oxygen isotope ratios are assigned to layers of ice or deep sea sediment to build a timeline.
It is notable that the amino acid ratios do correspond with the oxygen isotope ratios in various strata. The researchers seem to have found a fossil which protects trapped amino acids from all but thermal changes. Since both racemization ratios and oxygen isotope ratios are sensitive to temperature, the fact that the ratios correspond makes sense.
The problem is in the calibration of these findings with historical time. Uniformitarian geologists have never come up with an adequate explanation for the Ice Age or for multiple ice ages. Many theories have been proposed, and some have even been cast aside and resurrected later. The currently popular idea—the astronomical theory—is one of those.
Astronomical ice age theory is based on observable changes in earth’s tilt and orbit. The earth wobbles on it axis, the shape of its orbit varies slightly, and the orbital path itself shifts over time. These variations are insignificant within the biblical age of the earth. But if those variations are extrapolated over billions of years, the earth’s orbit would vary between its elliptical shape and a circular orbit. Since those variations would alter all the parameters that produce our familiar seasons, they propose those variations would cause hot enough times to evaporate ocean water and cold enough times to produce ice ages.4 The popularly accepted duration of the ice age cycles of the Quaternary Period come from this extrapolated astronomical data.
Since oxygen ratios and amino acid racemization are both temperature sensitive, they correspond and vary according to the seasonal and climatic changes they were exposed to. But neither tells us anything about the duration of those variations, and neither confirms the notion of multiple ice ages over millions of years.
The genomic forest is harder to see than its trees.
From chimps to the Human Genome Project and microbes to mice, genomic revelations abound in headlines. Epidemics are diagnosed. But sweeping conclusions about origins are sometimes based on comparisons which are limited by available technology and observer bias.
A new approach reported by Jun Wang of the Beijing Genomics Institute suggests investigators haven’t been seeing some of the most important genomic information after all. Most genetic studies, including those that trace ethnic background, focus on point-by-point mutations.
Also called single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs), these simple nucleotide substitutions are the easiest genetic variations to spot. Some SNPs are the cause of disease sickle cell anemia, for example. Others have no consequences and are useful for ancestral mapping. SNPs are easy to spot because DNA is most efficiently analyzed after chopping it into small pieces. Each piece can be sequenced and the results reassembled along conventional placement guides.
Wang’s team examined “long, relatively intact genome sequences.” Their method enabled them to spot structural variations such as “wholesale duplications and reversals, or unexpected additions and omissions, of long DNA sequences.” These large-scale variations are easily overlooked with conventional sequencing. Traditional methods focus on the details but can miss the big picture.
The team analyzed 106 genomes from the 1000 Human Genome Project. They found that structural variations “account for a greater fraction of the diversity between individuals” than SNPs.5 Although the scope of this project did not include linking structural variations to disease, that logical next step may explain the unusual inheritance patterns of some diseases.
These findings remind us that the genetic code is incredibly complex. The limits of knowledge and technology can prompt conclusions based on sketchy, spotty, and oversimplified information. A good example is chimp-human genome similarity. As valuable information increases our understanding of the genetic code, we should refrain from accepting dogmatic assertions about common ancestry, population studies, and molecular clocks inferred from genomic studies.
“Did God Create the Universe?” aired on Discovery last weekend along with an aftershow panel discussion. According to the LA Times, the program should be called “Stephen Hawking Explains Why He is Quite Certain God Did Not Create the Universe.” The writer adds that, despite Hawking’s “easily understood metaphors. . . like its alternative, belief in Hawking’s premise is an act of faith.” Commenting on the program, Dr. Jason Lisle, planetarium director for the Creation Museum, stated:
Steve Hawking claims we don’t need God, because the universe can be explained entirely by the laws of physics. But apart from God, how can we make sense of the existence and properties of the laws of physics? How could such laws exist apart from a Law-Giver, and how could we know that they apply everywhere at all times? Why is it that laws of nature obey simple mathematical relationships (such as E=mc2) that can be understood by the human mind?
The Christian worldview can make sense of these things. God upholds the universe in a logical and consistent way that can be at least partly understood by the human mind. Thus, the Christian worldview provides a rational foundation for science. However, Hawking is left in the embarrassing position of having no logical justification for the methods and procedures of science. He must borrow concepts (like universal laws of nature) from the Christian worldview while simultaneously denying the Christian God.
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