Saturday, 20 August 2011

Science and Christianity – must they clash?

Implacable enemies or close friends? As I wrote a few days ago, I've been reading a book that aims to show how scientific discoveries (especially evolution) need not present a barrier to believing in Jesus Christ and the Christian faith. In that post, my focus was on how evolution by natural selection explains certain things about our genetic structure much better than a literal 'God made Adam from the dust' account of how humanity came into being.

The next topic I'd like to look at is why some Christians feel the need to take the Bible's account of creation literally in the first place. What motivates some Christians to treat with suspicion any scientific ideas that seem to cut across the literal Biblical account? In a moment, we'll step back some 400 years to the time of Galileo, an Italian astronomer who made some discoveries that caused a mighty stir among the religious authorities of his era. But first, a word about how we read the Bible.

The classic evangelical way of reading the Bible is to take it as something like a law textbook, meaning we happily pluck from it isolated verses and phrases to quote as God's definitive word on a particular matter. By way of example (a personal bugbear of mine, this one), look at God's well-known words to the Israelite exiles in Babylon, spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:

'For I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord. They are plans for good and not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope.'

Those words were written as God's message to a particular group of people at a particular point in time. Now I'm not saying I don't believe they apply now to Christians in general, but this approach can get us into trouble. It's too simplistic to take some words of God from the Bible and casually apply them to ourselves. That might lead us to go into battle massively outnumbered and with each soldier carrying only a ram's horn and a lantern, as per the story of Gideon in Judges 7. Or perhaps we should delight in the violent deaths of our enemy's children, as the author of Psalm 137 seems to. On the contrary, we need to remember that all the dialogue, all the prophecies, all the events in the Bible took place at a certain time among a certain group of people. Surely that should be the starting point for all our efforts to interpret the Bible.

Like I wrote back in March, what if we step back from the law textbook approach and instead see the Bible as a God-inspired collection of books that tell us about God's people through the ages? Perhaps this would free us from a slavishly literal interpretation, while still leaving intact the Bible's status as the inspired word of God. Another (often-noted) point specific to the creation account in Genesis is that it is very poetic; it may well never have been intended as a literal, historical account.

On to Galileo, then. Galileo Galilei, to use his full name, made some important observations that cast great doubt on the traditional understanding of the universe. Here's the summary from that book I've been reading; The Language of God by Francis Collins:
In 1608, inspired by information he had heard about the invention of the telescope in the Netherlands, Galileo made his own instrument and quickly made a number of astronomical observations of profound significance. He observed four moons orbiting the planet Jupiter. That simple observation, which we take for granted today, presented significant problems for the traditional Ptolemaic system[], where all heavenly bodies were supposed to rotate around the earth. Galileo also observed sunspots, which represented a possible affront to the idea that all heavenly bodies were created perfect.

Galileo ultimately came to the conclusion that his observations could make sense only if the earth revolved around the sun. That placed him in direct conflict with the Catholic Church... The Dominican Friar Caccini... insisted that “geometry is of the devil” and that “mathematicians should be banished as the authors of all heresies.” Another Catholic priest claimed that Galileo's conclusions were not only heretical but atheistic. Other attacks included a claim that “his pretended discovery vitiates the whole Christian plan of salvation” and that “it casts suspicion on the doctrine of the incarnation.” While much of the criticism came from the Catholic Church, it was not limited to that. John Calvin and Martin Luther also objected.

Personally, I suspect that Christians and churches who reject evolution nowadays are in much the same position as Galileo's opponents 400 years ago. Francis Collins notes that: 'In retrospect, modern observers must wonder why the church was so utterly threatened by the idea of the earth revolving around the sun.' Collins picks out a few Bible verses that suggest a geocentric (earth-centred) view of the universe (Psalm 93:1, Psalm 104:5, Ecc 1:5) but then says: 'Today, few believers argue that the authors of these verses were intending to teach science.' I'm hoping that in the future people will say the same regarding the Genesis creation account, and evolution will be accepted by just about everyone as the explanation for the breathtaking array of life that we see all around us. Maybe that would stop what the Roman-era theologian, Augustine of Hippo, wrote about regarding Christians who (usually with the best of intentions, I have no doubt) speak about science from a position of ignorance (quoted from 'The Language of God'):
Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions... and this knowledge he holds to as being certain from reason and experience.

Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show a vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn.

The shame is not so much that an ignorant individual is derided, but... [that] the writers of our Scripture are criticized and rejected as unlearned men. If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books and matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods on facts which they themselves have learned from experience in the light of reason?

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

The Language of God

Francis Collins is an American scientist who directed the Human Genome Project, a multinational research programme to 'read' the entire human DNA sequence. The Project itself was completed in 1993, although work to analyse all the information (including work on discovering cures for various genetic conditions) is ongoing. Collins is a Christian and a firm believer in evolution as the mechanism for how humans came into being. He's got a lot to say about the mess that Christians can get into when it comes to science, but for now I thought I'd look at one aspect of what Collins considers to be the language of God.

To start with, here is Wikipedia's short introduction to genetics, along with a diagram from the Human Genome Project's piece on basic genetics. So, every organism on earth has a genome, a very long string of genetic information. In all but some viruses, the information is carried in a molecule called DNA, which consists of two 'spines' twisted together and linked by pairs of simpler molecules called 'bases', making something like a giant rope ladder twisted around into a spiral (diagram below thanks to There are only four options (given the letters G, C, A and T) for these bases, so the complete DNA sequence is a long (around three billion letters long in humans!) string of letters: GCCATCGTTCAATACGCC and so on.

Some sections of the DNA sequence, the string of letters, cause proteins to be made. Proteins are the chemicals that form the basis of pretty much everything in any living being; skin, blood, nerves, muscle and much more. In the protein-making sections of the DNA sequence, each little group of three letters gives an instruction for a certain protein component (called an amino acid) to be made. Large parts of the DNA sequence, though, don't seem to do much; a point which I'll come back to later.

On to Francis Collins' book, then. Starting on page 126, he notes that our DNA has much in common with the DNA of other creatures, especially mammals but also fish and even some insects. The amount in common changes quite a lot depending on whether you're looking at parts of the human DNA sequence that code for proteins or at the other, apparently inactive parts (so-called junk DNA). If you start with a stretch of human DNA in a protein-coding area, the chances of finding a similar sequence in other creatures are:

Chimpanzee 100%
Dog 99%
Mouse 99%
Chicken 75%
Fruit fly 60%
Roundworm 35%

But the chances of a close match drop quite a bit if you look at those 'junk' DNA sections:

Chimpanzee 98%
Dog 52%
Mouse 40%
Chicken 4%
Fruit fly almost 0%
Roundworm almost 0%

Doesn't this strike you as odd? Why should the correlation between human and other DNA be much higher in the protein-coding areas than in 'junk' DNA? Collins says it gives support in two ways for an evolutionary understanding of how we came to be. Firstly (from page 129), he notes that we can build up a tree of organisms that shows how closely related they are, based on how much DNA they have in common:
At the level of the genome as a whole, a computer can construct a tree of life based solely upon the similarities of the DNA sequences of multiple organisms... Bear in mind that this analysis does not utilize any information from the fossil record, or from anatomic observation of current life forms. Yet its similarity to conclusions drawn from studies of comparative anatomy, both of existent organisms and of fossilized remains, is striking.

The second point Collins makes is that evolutionary theory predicts a gradual build-up of mutations that do not affect the organism, while mutations that do have an effect will be much rarer. And this is what we see; mutations in the 'junk' DNA sections are far more common than mutations in areas that give instructions for making proteins. This is because most of the latter will severely hamper the individual organism in which they happen, leading to the organism probably not surviving to adulthood and therefore not having any offspring to pass the mutation on to. Only a few mutations in protein-coding areas will be advantageous (or at least neutral) to the organism and stand a chance of being passed on to the next generation.

There's a follow-up to the second point, which relates to the fact that a few DNA mutations don't lead to the protein changing. As I mentioned above, the DNA sequence is basically made up of a huge string of the letters G, C, A and T. In sections of the DNA that cause proteins to be made, each set of three letters gives an instruction for a certain protein component (called an amino acid) to be made. For most of these protein components the set of three letters has to be exactly right, but there are a few where changing one letter in the set for a different letter still leads to the same amino acid being made. And these 'silent' mutations are seen far more often than mutations that do cause a different protein component to be made. I wonder why this might be, if not because evolution is the means by which humanity was created...

Sunday, 14 August 2011

Don't label me!

I want to have a moan tonight. There's been a lot of labelling in the media over the last week or so relating to people involved in the rioting. You know what I mean; 'feral youth', 'hooligans', 'irresponsible parents' and so on (and so on...). I wonder why we feel the need to label people like this, rather than talking about their behaviour. Is it because we think that we'd never do terrible things like those, those criminals are doing? Perhaps it's comforting to subtly draw a dividing line between basically decent, law-abiding people like us and low-life, hooligan scum like them.

It's reminded me of a couple of other references to labelling. Firstly, a friend of mine who has young daughters mentioned that she'd heard (or read; I can't quite remember) about a danger in telling your children that they're beautiful. This had never struck me before (isn't it the most natural thing in the world to tell your daughter that she's beautiful and you love her?) but apparently it can make your child think that you only love them because they're beautiful. I suppose this can easily be made worse by the effect of all the images in advertising that children get bombarded with as they grow up. I've no idea how solidly founded this research was; perhaps it's one person's hare-brained idea that's not based on any concrete research at all. Anyway, it got me thinking.

The second thing that came to mind was something I read a year or two back about academically gifted children. I think this was a proper research paper but I haven't been able to find it again tonight (apologies!). The article referred to two groups of children; both of which were given praise, but one along the lines of 'You're really clever' and the other with more specific statements like 'That work you did was really good'. Each set of children were asked to sit a test and could choose an easier or harder version. Here's the kicker; the children given the broader, labelling-type praise (the 'You're so clever' statements) chose the easier test significantly more often than the children whose specific pieces of work were praised. Label a kid as clever and it seems they'll choose the easier option, because they don't want to fall short of the standard set for them. Label their work as good and they'll choose the harder option, believing that it's within their capabilities. Interesting, huh?

Going back to the rioting and looting, I'm not at all meaning to excuse criminal behaviour. If people are found guilty of criminal acts then I think they should be punished. But I don't think it's helpful to label people as criminal, anti-social or whatever, as if they are fundamentally different from those who have not been out rioting over the last week. Also, as a Christian, it's a core part of my faith (a) that all people are made in God's image, to carry his glory into the world, and (b) that all people fall short of this ideal. To what extent each of us falls short isn't something that should concern us. Planks of wood and specks of dust...

Thursday, 11 August 2011

A massive overhang of debt

With all the analysis, blame-laying and doom-mongering about the riots, I wonder if the speech George Osborne gave today about the global economic situation will get a bit lost. That would be a shame, I think, as he said some very interesting things about the amount of debt that many developed countries are in, and the impact that this debt is having. Osborne noted a few triggers for the ski-jump-like falls in the financial markets over the last week or so:
Mr Speaker, it is not hard to identify the recent events that have triggered the latest market falls.

There has been the weak economic data from the US and the historic downgrade of that country’s credit rating.

And the crisis of confidence in the ability of Eurozone countries to pay their debts has spread from the periphery to major economies like Italy and Spain.

Then he went on to explain what he thinks is the root cause of all these events, and this is the part that really caught my eye:
But these events did not come out of the blue.

They all have the same root cause.


In particular, a massive overhang of debt from a decade-long boom when economic growth was based on unsustainable household borrowing, unrealistic house prices, dangerously high banking leverage, and a failure of governments to put their public finances in order.

Unfortunately, the UK was perhaps the most eager participant in this boom, with the most indebted households, the biggest housing bubble, the most over-leveraged banks and the largest budget deficit of them all.

Moaning about how stupidly high house prices are is one of my hobby-horses so I was pleased to see a senior politician like Osborne talk about a housing bubble. Is the Government preparing to let house prices fall back to a sensible level, i.e. somewhere near the long-term trend value of around four times the average salary? Given how much of the UK's sense of well-being seems to be tied up with increasing how prices I'm still rather sceptical, but we shall see... (Graph taken from This is Money.)

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

It's all kicked off

Wow, August is normally a very quiet month as far as politics is concerned. But the financial markets are plummeting following the USA's credit rating being downgraded and, of course, there's been a series of riots across London and some other parts of the UK. What's going on? I've not been at work for the last couple of days and I've found it fascinating to follow what different politicians, journalists and commentators have been saying about the riots. Here is the view of former mayor of London, Ken Livingstone:
While the first priority is to restore peace, to ensure the safety of everyone now and in the future it is also necessary to have a serious discussion about why this has happened.

I am concerned that there is growing social dislocation in London and a threat that the police will be forced into escalating conflict with some London communities. We do not want to go back to the 1980s.

The economic stagnation and cuts being imposed by the Tory government inevitably create social division. As when Margaret Thatcher imposed such policies during her recessions this creates the threat of people losing control, acting in completely unacceptable ways that threaten everyone, and culminating in events of the type we saw in Tottenham.

Tories will issue knee-jerk statements demanding support for the police but they are actually cutting the police. That amounts to pure hypocrisy.

It's definitely vital to discuss the background and triggers for these riots but surely now is not the time to try and score party political points. Too soon, Ken. Also, I think he's utterly wrong to suggest that 15 months of David Cameron's government have been a big factor but that's not the point. Save the blame game for later, when the violence is under control.

Having said that, I'm going to do a bit of armchair speculation of my own. I heard on the radio earlier some really insightful and sensitive (I thought) comment from a lady called Camila Batmanghelidjh, who founded and now runs an organisation called Kids Company. They work with severely deprived and vulnerable children, aiming to help them get (and stay) out of trouble and develop aspirations for their future. This is what she wrote in today's Independent. See what you think. It's got to be better than dismissing the people involved as 'feral rats', 'mindless thugs' and so on, hasn't it? Mind you, I am uncomfortable with how strong a link she draws between deprivation and rioting; how many of those rioting over the last few days are deprived? Whose fault is it that 'the established community is perceived to provide nothing'?

Going back to Ken Livingstone's blaming of the Government and their spending cuts, maybe it's more about a deep-seated failure of education, parenting, social support services, policing etc. (delete according to your personal view) in certain parts of the country. I was amused by the rhetorical question asked in this article from the Daily Telegraph: would the rioters stop in their tracks if their local authority were to reinstate their library?