Jun 25 2012

The Next Great Awakening, Part 16: “Somehow it just happened that one simple cell got inside another simple cell”

Category: Evolution,Intelligent Design,scienceharmonicminer @ 12:09 pm

The previous post in this series is here.

So, in yet another attempt to account for the fact, discussed previously here and here, that we see no evidence yet of alien life (let alone intelligent alien life), we have this just-s0-story at New Scientist, a story that it seems to me is more conjecture than science:

UNDER the intense stare of the Kepler space telescope, more and more planets similar to our own are revealing themselves to us. We haven’t found one exactly like Earth yet, but so many are being discovered that it appears the galaxy must be teeming with habitable planets.

These discoveries are bringing an old paradox back into focus. As physicist Enrico Fermi asked in 1950, if there are many suitable homes for life out there and alien life forms are common, where are they all? More than half a century of searching for extraterrestrial intelligence has so far come up empty-handed.

Of course, the universe is a very big place. Even Frank Drake’s famously optimistic “equation” for life’s probability suggests that we will be lucky to stumble across intelligent aliens: they may be out there, but we’ll never know it. That answer satisfies no one, however.

There are deeper explanations. Perhaps alien civilisations appear and disappear in a galactic blink of an eye, destroying themselves long before they become capable of colonising new planets. Or maybe life very rarely gets started even when conditions are perfect.

If we cannot answer these kinds of questions by looking out, might it be possible to get some clues by looking in? Life arose only once on Earth, and if a sample of one were all we had to go on, no grand conclusions could be drawn. But there is more than that. Looking at a vital ingredient for life – energy – suggests that simple life is common throughout the universe, but it does not inevitably evolve into more complex forms such as animals. I might be wrong, but if I’m right, the immense delay between life first appearing on Earth and the emergence of complex life points to another, very different explanation for why we have yet to discover aliens.

Read more: “Timeline: The evolution of life

Living things consume an extraordinary amount of energy, just to go on living. The food we eat gets turned into the fuel that powers all living cells, called ATP. This fuel is continually recycled: over the course of a day, humans each churn through 70 to 100 kilograms of the stuff. This huge quantity of fuel is made by enzymes, biological catalysts fine-tuned over aeons to extract every last joule of usable energy from reactions.

The enzymes that powered the first life cannot have been as efficient, and the first cells must have needed a lot more energy to grow and divide – probably thousands or millions of times as much energy as modern cells. The same must be true throughout the universe.

This phenomenal energy requirement is often left out of considerations of life’s origin. What could the primordial energy source have been here on Earth? Old ideas of lightning or ultraviolet radiation just don’t pass muster. Aside from the fact that no living cells obtain their energy this way, there is nothing to focus the energy in one place. The first life could not go looking for energy, so it must have arisen where energy was plentiful.

Today, most life ultimately gets its energy from the sun, but photosynthesis is complex and probably didn’t power the first life. So what did? Reconstructing the history of life by comparing the genomes of simple cells is fraught with problems. Nevertheless, such studies all point in the same direction. The earliest cells seem to have gained their energy and carbon from the gases hydrogen and carbon dioxide. The reaction of H2 with CO2 produces organic molecules directly, and releases energy. That is important, because it is not enough to form simple molecules: it takes buckets of energy to join them up into the long chains that are the building blocks of life.

A second clue to how the first life got its energy comes from the energy-harvesting mechanism found in all known life forms. This mechanism was so unexpected that there were two decades of heated altercations after it was proposed by British biochemist Peter Mitchell in 1961.

Universal force field

Mitchell suggested that cells are powered not by chemical reactions, but by a kind of electricity, specifically by a difference in the concentration of protons (the charged nuclei of hydrogen atoms) across a membrane. Because protons have a positive charge, the concentration difference produces an electrical potential difference between the two sides of the membrane of about 150 millivolts. It might not sound like much, but because it operates over only 5 millionths of a millimetre, the field strength over that tiny distance is enormous, around 30 million volts per metre. That’s equivalent to a bolt of lightning.

Mitchell called this electrical driving force the proton-motive force. It sounds like a term from Star Wars, and that’s not inappropriate. Essentially, all cells are powered by a force field as universal to life on Earth as the genetic code. This tremendous electrical potential can be tapped directly, to drive the motion of flagella, for instance, or harnessed to make the energy-rich fuel ATP.

However, the way in which this force field is generated and tapped is extremely complex. The enzyme that makes ATP is a rotating motor powered by the inward flow of protons. Another protein that helps to generate the membrane potential, NADH dehydrogenase, is like a steam engine, with a moving piston for pumping out protons. These amazing nanoscopic machines must be the product of prolonged natural selection. They could not have powered life from the beginning, which leaves us with a paradox.

Life guzzles energy, and inefficient primordial cells must have required much more energy, not less. These vast amounts of energy are most likely to have derived from a proton gradient, because the universality of this mechanism means it evolved early on. But how did early life manage something that today requires very sophisticated machinery?

There is a simple way to get huge amounts of energy this way. What’s more, the context makes me think that it really wasn’t that difficult for life to arise in the first place.

The answer I favour was proposed 20 years ago by the geologist Michael Russell, now at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, who had been studying deep-sea hydrothermal vents. Say “deep-sea vent” and many people think of dramatic black smokers surrounded by giant tube worms. Russell had something much more modest in mind: alkaline hydrothermal vents. These are not volcanic at all, and don’t smoke. They are formed as seawater percolates down into the electron-dense rocks found in the Earth’s mantle, such as the iron-magnesium mineral olivine.

Olivine and water react to form serpentinite in a process that expands and cracks the rock, allowing in more water and perpetuating the reaction. Serpentinisation produces alkaline – proton poor – fluids rich in hydrogen gas, and the heat it releases drives these fluids back up to the ocean floor. When they come into contact with cooler ocean waters, the minerals precipitate out, forming towering vents up to 60 metres tall. Such vents, Russell realised, provide everything needed to incubate life. Or rather they did, four billion years ago.

Back then, there was very little, if any, oxygen, so the oceans were rich in dissolved iron. There was probably a lot more CO2 than there is today, which meant that the oceans were mildly acidic – that is, they had an excess of protons.

Just think what happens in a situation like this. Inside the porous vents, there are tiny, interconnected cell-like spaces enclosed by flimsy mineral walls. These walls contain the same catalysts – notably various iron, nickel and molybdenum sulphides – used by cells today (albeit embedded in proteins) to catalyse the conversion of CO2 into organic molecules.

Fluids rich in hydrogen percolate through this labyrinth of catalytic micropores. Normally, it is hard to get CO2 and H2 to react: efforts to capture CO2 to reduce global warming face exactly this problem. Catalysts alone may not be enough. But living cells don’t capture carbon using catalysts alone – they use proton gradients to drive the reaction. And between a vent’s alkaline fluids and acidic water there is a natural proton gradient.

Could this natural proton-motive force have driven the formation of organic molecules? It is too early to say for sure. I’m working on exactly that question, and there are exciting times ahead. But let’s speculate for a moment that the answer is yes. What does that solve? A great deal. Once the barrier to the reaction between CO2 and H2 is down, the reaction can proceed apace. Remarkably, under conditions typical of alkaline hydrothermal vents, the combining of H2 and CO2 to produce the molecules found in living cells – amino acids, lipids, sugars and nucleobases – actually releases energy.

That means that far from being some mysterious exception to the second law of thermodynamics, from this point of view, life is in fact driven by it. It is an inevitable consequence of a planetary imbalance, in which electron-rich rocks are separated from electron-poor, acidic oceans by a thin crust, perforated by vent systems that focus this electrochemical driving force into cell-like systems. The planet can be seen as a giant battery; the cell is a tiny battery built on basically the same principles.

I’m the first to admit that there are many gaps to fill in, many steps between an electrochemical reactor that produces organic molecules and a living, breathing cell. But consider the bigger picture for a moment. The origin of life needs a very short shopping list: rock, water and CO2.

Water and olivine are among the most abundant substances in the universe. Many planetary atmospheres in the solar system are rich in CO2, suggesting that it is common too. Serpentinisation is a spontaneous reaction, and should happen on a large scale on any wet, rocky planet. From this perspective, the universe should be teeming with simple cells – life may indeed be inevitable whenever the conditions are right. It’s hardly surprising that life on Earth seems to have begun almost as soon as it could.

Then what happens? It is generally assumed that once simple life has emerged, it gradually evolves into more complex forms, given the right conditions. But that’s not what happened on Earth. After simple cells first appeared, there was an extraordinarily long delay – nearly half the lifetime of the planet – before complex ones evolved. What’s more, simple cells gave rise to complex ones just once in four billion years of evolution: a shockingly rare anomaly, suggestive of a freak accident.

If simple cells had slowly evolved into more complex ones over billions of years, all kinds of intermediate cells would have existed and some still should. But there are none. Instead, there is a great gulf. On the one hand, there are the bacteria, tiny in both their cell volume and genome size: they are streamlined by selection, pared down to a minimum: fighter jets among cells. On the other, there are the vast and unwieldy eukaryotic cells, more like aircraft carriers than fighter jets. A typical single-celled eukaryote is about 15,000 times larger than a bacterium, with a genome to match.

The great divide

All the complex life on Earth – animals, plants, fungi and so on – are eukaryotes, and they all evolved from the same ancestor. So without the one-off event that produced the ancestor of eukaryotic cells, there would have been no plants and fish, no dinosaurs and apes. Simple cells just don’t have the right cellular architecture to evolve into more complex forms.

Why not? I recently explored this issue with the pioneering cell biologist Bill Martin of the University of Düsseldorf in Germany. Drawing on data about the metabolic rates and genome sizes of various cells, we calculated how much energy would be available to simple cells as they grew bigger (Nature, vol 467, p 929).

What we discovered is that there is an extraordinary energetic penalty for growing larger. If you were to expand a bacterium up to eukaryotic proportions, it would have tens of thousands of times less energy available per gene than an equivalent eukaryote. And cells need lots of energy per gene, because making a protein from a gene is an energy-intensive process. Most of a cell’s energy goes into making proteins.

At first sight, the idea that bacteria have nothing to gain by growing larger would seem to be undermined by the fact that there are some giant bacteria bigger than many complex cells, notably Epulopiscium, which thrives in the gut of the surgeonfish. Yet Epulopiscium has up to 200,000 copies of its complete genome. Taking all these multiple genomes into consideration, the energy available for each copy of any gene is almost exactly the same as for normal bacteria, despite the vast total amount of DNA. They are perhaps best seen as consortia of cells that have fused together into one, rather than as giant cells.

So why do giant bacteria need so many copies of their genome? Recall that cells harvest energy from the force field across their membranes, and that this membrane potential equates to a bolt of lightning. Cells get it wrong at their peril. If they lose control of the membrane potential, they die. Nearly 20 years ago, biochemist John Allen, now at Queen Mary, University of London, suggested that genomes are essential for controlling the membrane potential, by controlling protein production. These genomes need to be near the membrane they control so they can respond swiftly to local changes in conditions. Allen and others have amassed a good deal of evidence that this is true for eukaryotes, and there are good reasons to think it applies to simple cells, too.

So the problem that simple cells face is this. To grow larger and more complex, they have to generate more energy. The only way they can do this is to expand the area of the membrane they use to harvest energy. To maintain control of the membrane potential as the area of the membrane expands, though, they have to make extra copies of their entire genome – which means they don’t actually gain any energy per gene copy.

Put another way, the more genes that simple cells acquire, the less they can do with them. And a genome full of genes that can’t be used is no advantage. This is a tremendous barrier to growing more complex, because making a fish or a tree requires thousands more genes than bacteria possess.

So how did eukaryotes get around this problem? By acquiring mitochondria.

About 2 billion years ago, one simple cell somehow ended up inside another.


The identity of the host cell isn’t clear, but we know it acquired a bacterium, which began to divide within it.

Do we really KNOW this?

These cells within cells competed for succession; those that replicated fastest, without losing their capacity to generate energy, were likely to be better represented in the next generation.And so on, generation after generation, these endosymbiotic bacteria evolved into tiny power generators, containing both the membrane needed to make ATP and the genome needed to control membrane potential. Crucially, though, along the way they were stripped down to a bare minimum. Anything unnecessary has gone, in true bacterial style. Mitochondria originally had a genome of perhaps 3000 genes; nowadays they have just 40 or so genes left.

For the host cell, it was a different matter. As the mitochondrial genome shrank, the amount of energy available per host-gene copy increased and its genome could expand. Awash in ATP, served by squadrons of mitochondria, it was free to accumulate DNA and grow larger. You can think of mitochondria as a fleet of helicopters that “carry” the DNA in the nucleus of the cell. As mitochondrial genomes were stripped of their own unnecessary DNA, they became lighter and could each lift a heavier load, allowing the nuclear genome to grow ever larger.

So, are we about to be able to replicate in a lab a way to “somehow” put one simple cell inside another, without killing both?

These huge genomes provided the genetic raw material that led to the evolution of complex life. Mitochondria did not prescribe complexity, but they permitted it. It’s hard to imagine any other way of getting around the energy problem – and we know it happened just once on Earth because all eukaryotes descend from a common ancestor.

Freak of nature

The emergence of complex life, then, seems to hinge on a single fluke event – the acquisition of one simple cell by another.

Hmmm… I suppose it may have been a “single fluke event.” But that doesn’t require it to be an accident, does it?

Such associations may be common among complex cells, but they are extremely rare in simple ones. And the outcome was by no means certain: the two intimate partners went through a lot of difficult co-adaptation before their descendants could flourish.

Something like this may have been the origin of the psychotherapeutic theory of “codependency”…. but I digress.

This does not bode well for the prospects of finding intelligent aliens. It means there is no inevitable evolutionary trajectory from simple to complex life. Never-ending natural selection, operating on infinite populations of bacteria over billions of years, may never give rise to complexity. Bacteria simply do not have the right architecture. They are not energetically limited as they are – the problem only becomes visible when we look at what it would take for their volume and genome size to expand. Only then can we see that bacteria occupy a deep canyon in an energy landscape, from which they are unable to escape.

So what chance life? It would be surprising if simple life were not common throughout the universe. Simple cells are built from the most ubiquitous of materials – water, rock and CO2 – and they are thermodynamically close to inevitable. Their early appearance on Earth, far from being a statistical quirk, is exactly what we would expect.

The optimistic assumption of the Drake equation was that on planets where life emerged, 1 per cent gave rise to intelligent life. But if I’m right, complex life is not at all inevitable. It arose here just once in four billion years thanks to a rare, random event. There’s every reason to think that a similar freak accident would be needed anywhere else in the universe too. Nothing else could break through the energetic barrier to complexity.

See graphic: “Other worlds

This line of reasoning suggests that while Earth-like planets may teem with life, very few ever give rise to complex cells. That means there are very few opportunities for plants and animals to evolve, let alone intelligent life. So even if we discover that simple cells evolved on Mars, too, it won’t tell us much about how common animal life is elsewhere in the universe.

All this might help to explain why we’ve never found any sign of aliens. Of course, some of the other explanations that have been proposed, such as life on other planets usually being wiped out by catastrophic events such as gamma-ray bursts long before smart aliens get a chance evolve, could well be true too. If so, there may be very few other intelligent aliens in the galaxy.

Then, again, perhaps some just happen to live in our neighbourhood. If we do ever meet them, there’s one thing I would bet on: they will have mitochondria too.

While I appreciate the discussion about the uniqueness of life on earth, I think there is a better explanation than “somehow it just happened.”  Science of the gaps, anyone?  And isn’t it nice to have a theory to explain why we see no evidence of the public works of intelligent aliens, a theory which cannot really be tested by experiment….  and so, a theory couched in scientific-speak that is not scientific, since it cannot be falsified?

Consider….  even if scientists are able to laboriously coax one simple cell inside another, and then cause some further complexity to develop, all that will prove is that intelligent agents can make things happen that may be otherwise impossible.

Jul 18 2010

A Wonderful Story

Category: friendship,God,Intelligent Designamuzikman @ 8:55 am

This is a truly remarkable story.  It has found its way into print in Guideposts magazine, in a lovely little book called “When God Winks” by SQuire Rushnell, and now on this gentleman’s blog.  It’s also a very personal story to me.

The Day Weary Willie Smiled

By Phil Bolsta

emmett-kellyEmmett Kelly as Weary Willie

I loved Emmett Kelly as a kid. He was Weary Willie, the quintessential tramp clown, an integral part of my childhood. This touching and amazing story by his daughter, Stasia Kelly, of Atlanta, Georgia, appeared in the October 2006 issue of Guideposts. What are the odds of this story ending as it did?  Probably one in a trillion. And yet . . .

I sat on the plane, my purse in my lap, waiting to take off from Hartsfield International Airport in Atlanta for Florida to attend my father’s funeral. I had just spoken to Dad the day before. He’d sounded a little down, but I never guessed it would be the last time I heard his voice. “I’m tired, Stasia,” he said. I could hear that tiredness through the phone, could feel it the way so many people had felt the world-weariness in the most beloved character my father ever portrayed.

emmett-kelly-smilingEmmett Kelly learns he’s a dad

I shifted in my seat—first-class because it was the only available spot on this leg of my trip home. The airline-reservations operator had promised to get me there in time for Dad’s funeral, so she honored my bereavement ticket and gave me an upgrade. I pulled the faded newspaper photo from my purse and glanced at it. The famous picture of my dad, Emmett Kelly. Or should I say of Weary Willie, the sad clown that he had immortalized. Dad was disciplined about Willie’s public persona. Once Dad put his makeup on, Weary Willie never broke character and never smiled, except once, back in 1955. That one time he smiled—beamed, really—a young photographer snapped his photo, and around the globe it went. The only time Willie smiled in public, the world smiled with him.

The plane was almost full and the seat next to me was still vacant. Good, I’d have the row to myself and my tears. I didn’t feel like explaining to some high-powered business type why I was so sad. I folded the picture and slipped it back inside my purse just as a well-dressed, middle-aged man strode down the aisle and took his seat next to me.

“Almost missed this flight,” he said with a sigh, as we taxied from the gate.

Odd as it might sound, in the clowning business Dad was a revolutionary. Clowns were happy figures …zany, wacky, unpredictable and relentlessly upbeat. But that’s not the kind of clown Dad was. He’d created Willie on his drawing board—a rumpled, sad-sack figure, beaten down by the world, Everyman on a lifelong losing streak. In those days, circus bosses were skeptical. Did people want a depressed clown? But they let him try it.

By the 1940s, the sad clown had become a hit and Dad had made it to the big time—Ringling Bros. circus. People cared about Willie and his struggles. They saw that no matter how hard he took it on the chin, Willie never gave up. He became the world’s most famous clown, probably the most recognizable clown ever. Maybe the reason Willie was so easy for people to love was that Dad brought a bit of himself to the character. Not that Dad was a sad sack, but he understood struggle. His early life on the road was tough and often lonely. Then in middle age he fell head over heels in love with a beautiful trapeze artist who eventually became his wife and my mom. They bought a little place in sunny Sarasota, Florida, for when the circus wasn’t traveling. It had a big backyard, a porch and a vegetable garden. For the first time, Weary Willie was a happy man—and happiest of all, I’m told, that day I was born. He and Mom named me Stasia.

Now, staring out the plane window, I tried to be grateful for that happiness Dad had found, and for the life he had led making others happy. How much more blessed could a daughter be than to have Emmett Kelly as her father? Even the airline-reservations operator who managed to get me this last-minute seat said some thing. “I remember Willie! Your dad made so many people smile.” Yet yearning and grief crushed out all my other feelings. I rested my head against the seat. Dear Lord, comfort me. Show me a sign Dad is content with you the way he was with Mom and our home and the backyard where he watched us kids play.

They say the food in first class is better. I wouldn’t know. I didn’t feel much like eating. I kept my tray up and stared into my lap. I just wanted to get home to Florida. I felt the plane slow and then one wing dipped as we started to descend. I couldn’t resist pulling that old newspaper clipping out of my purse and looking again at Dad beaming that incredible smile as he held a phone and heard the news that I’d been born. Immediately, I had to wipe away a tear.

I barely heard the man next to me say, “Excuse me.” He tapped my arm gently.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “Yes?”

“”That photo…”

“My dad, Emmett Kelly. He died today. But this is from the day I was born….”

“I know, Stasia. I know. I was there. I’ve never seen a man so happy. I just had to snap that picture.”

My father, Frank Beatty, was the photographer who took that now-famous picture – the only one ever taken of Weary Willie smiling.  And what an amazing moment for him to meet Kelly’s daughter that day on the plane.  My dad went on to become very good friends with Stasia Kelly, he was even the photographer at her wedding.  God does indeed often work in mysterious ways.

Jul 08 2010

Just in case they didn’t notice our candles, let’s turn on the searchlight? Or maybe not

Category: humor,illegal alien,Intelligent Design,science,spaceharmonicminer @ 4:43 pm

A scientist who makes his living in SETI, searching for alien societies who might be communicating with us, says that It’s too late to worry that the aliens will find us

STEPHEN HAWKING is worried about aliens. The famous physicist recently suggested that we should be wary of contact with extraterrestrials, citing what happened to Native Americans when Europeans landed on their shores. Since any species that could visit us would be far beyond our own technological level, meeting them could be bad news.

Hawking was extrapolating the possible consequences of my day job: a small but durable exercise known as SETI, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence.

Although we have yet to detect an alien ping, improvements in technology have encouraged us to think that, if transmitting extraterrestrials are out there, we might soon find them. That would be revolutionary. But some people, Hawking included, sense a catastrophe.

Consider what happens if we succeed. Should we respond? Any broadcast could blow Earth’s cover, inviting the possibility of attack by a society advanced enough to pick up our signals.

On the face of it, that sounds like a scenario straight out of cheap science fiction. But even if the odds of calamity are small, why gamble?

For three years, this issue has been exercising a group of SETI scientists in the International Academy of Astronautics. The crux of the dispute was an initiative by a few members to proscribe any broadcasts to aliens, whether or not we receive a signal first.

In truth, banning broadcasts would be impractical – and manifestly too late. We have been inadvertently betraying our presence for 60 years with our television, radio and radar transmissions. The earliest episodes of I Love Lucy have washed over 6000 or so star systems, and are reaching new audiences at the rate of one solar system a day. If there are sentient beings out there, the signals will reach them.

Detecting this leakage radiation won’t be that difficult. Its intensity decreases with the square of the distance, but even if the nearest aliens were 1000 light years away, they would still be able to detect it as long as their antenna technology was a century or two ahead of ours.

This makes it specious to suggest that we should ban deliberate messages on the grounds that they would be more powerful than our leaked signals. Only a society close to our level of development would be able to pick up an intentional broadcast while failing to notice TV and radar. And a society at our level is no threat.

The flip side is that for any alien society that could be dangerous, a deliberate message makes no difference. Such a society could use its own star as a gravitational lens, and even see the glow from our street lamps. Hawking’s warning is irrelevant.

Such considerations motivated the SETI group at the International Academy of Astronautics to reject a proscription of transmissions to the sky. It was the right decision. The extraterrestrials may be out there, and we might learn much by discovering them, but it is paranoia of a rare sort that would shutter the Earth out of fear that they might discover us.

Not everyone agrees.

Then there’s this, from a scientist who has written science fiction about nice aliens who “uplift” less than sentient species into full sophont status.  Maybe one of them would try to “uplift” humanity…

I’m not deeply worried that ET wants to come to Earth and eat us or something.  But if ET is out there, and can get here, and wants to get here, I really doubt that it would be out of a sense of altruism.  What if ET is at the same moral level as the Aztecs?  Maybe they believe in sacrificing low-level cultures (that would be us) to appease the Dark Energy God.

I mean, they could always just send a nice note, if all they want is to be pen pals.  And everyone knows it isn’t a good idea to meet in person with people you just met on Facebook….  let alone give them your home address.

Nov 15 2009

Introducing the Shacklephone

Category: humor,Intelligent Design,musicsardonicwhiner @ 9:10 am

No, it’s not a new competitor for the iPhone.

A few of my musician friends are attempting to invent a conceptually new musical instrument we will call the Shacklephone.  It will have keys, strings, a brass mouth-piece, frets, a slide, a bassoon mouthpiece, valves, a bell, a resonating body, and a sustain pedal, not to mention a MIDI interface, balanced audio input/output, AES/EBU digital audio interface, wordclock i/o, SMPTE timecode i/o, 64GB of RAM and a satellite transmission capability.  There will be Bb Tenor Shacklephones, Eb Alto and Eb Contrabass Shacklephones, and, of course, C Melody Shacklephones.  It will be the only musical instrument that is all things to all musicians.  There will even be drum and Shacklephone corps, using anti-gravity-equipped marching Shacklephones.  The special F Gospel Shacklephone will automatically scoop all notes.

Who needs physical modeling synthesis when you’ve simply included something of all the instruments?  Much like the music of Scriabin was supposed to have done, but didn’t, the Shacklephone will usher in the new age of enlightenment and agape love among all humanity.  The very age of Aquarius, with a dose of galactic alignment thrown in for good measure.

Professional design assistance is needed.  Anyone who would like to submit artist renderings of the proposed instrument could share in the royalties from the (doubtless) extensive sales anticipated for it.

The first prototype is scheduled to be rolling out of the Shacklephone factory sometime in the year 2012, and will be delivered to Yo-Yo Ma, who is developing a method book for novice Shacklephonists.  Bono has requested one so that he can Shacklephonically pursue world peace.  Persistent rumors at the Huffington Post suggest that Bill Clinton, the first black president, plans to appear on late night TV playing the Bb Marching Shacklephone (we all know of his fondness for astroturf…  shoot, didn’t he have his pickup truck bed lined with it?) as he tries to help Hillary unseat Obama in the 2012 elections.  I don’t think it will help, but it will be fun to watch.  He was always good at playing the blues.

Because of the possibility of Shacklephonio-political implications, the factory’s location will remain undisclosed until the first production run is complete and delivery has been made.  This should help avoid the appearance of former ACORN workers now employed by the Office of Universal Care Health Enforcement (OUCHE) trying to shut the place down to protect Obama’s re-election prospects…  since, of course, when the new age dawns, no one will be voting for him.

Wait:  didn’t I hear something else about the year 2012?

Must remember.

Aug 06 2008

The next great awakening: Part 3, Why is rationality a feature of the universe, and of human beings?

Category: Intelligent Design,theologyharmonicminer @ 9:48 am

The previous post in this series is here.

One of our finest Christian philosophers, J.P. Moreland, has clearly described the central problems with trying to explain human rationality with a purely naturalistic approach:

The recalcitrant nature of human persons for scientific naturalism has been widely noticed. Thus, Berkeley philosopher John Searle recently observed, “There is exactly one overriding question in contemporary philosophy. How do we fit in? How can we square this self-conception of ourselves as mindful, meaning-creating, free, rational, etc., agents with a universe that consists entirely of mindless, meaningless, unfree, nonrational, brute physical particles?”  For the scientific naturalist, the answer is not very well.

The difficulty for scientific naturalism in accounting for these commonsense features of human beings has not been noticed simply by notable atheists. In fact, the nature of human persons has lead some to embrace theism. In the seismic book recounting the shift to theism by famous atheist Anthony Flew in There is a God, Roy Abraham Varghese notes that

“…the rationality that we unmistakably experience” ranging from the laws of nature to our capacity for rational thought cannot be explained if it does not have an ultimate ground, which can be nothing less than an infinite mind.

Read the whole thing, and if you find it at all interesting, you can easily find many books and articles by Moreland.

The anthropic principle (really, more of an observation) points out that the universe seems eerily fine-tuned for human beings to inhabit. But the flip side of the anthropic principle is that we are able to notice the fine-tuning, and create the anthropic principle to reflect our observations. As Robert M. Pirsig pointed out in “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” (if you haven’t read this, you should indulge yourself), science is not sufficient to explain the existence of science.

To put it another way, naturalism is not sufficient to explain its own existence as a conjecture about the nature of the universe.

Do you suppose Someone is trying to tell us something?

The next post in this series is here.

Jul 30 2008

The next great awakening, part 2: the limitations of evidence in creating or challenging faith

Category: Intelligent Design,science,theologyharmonicminer @ 9:28 am

The first post in this series is here.

Thought experiment: imagine that over the next five years, paleontologists find dozens of new intermediate life forms between fish and amphibians. Also, they discover several intermediates between homo sapiens sapiens’ current presumed immediate ancestor (you pick it; the scientists don’t really agree on this) and us.

Would committed young Earth creationists, for whom the universe is no more than 6000-7000 years old, be persuaded that the case of evolution was proved?

Continue reading “The next great awakening, part 2: the limitations of evidence in creating or challenging faith”

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Jul 26 2008

The next great awakening? Part 1

Category: Intelligent Design,science,theologyharmonicminer @ 9:49 am

I’m planning to do a few posts on the convergence of science and theism. This is the first. I’m thinking out loud a bit here, and hoping to get some input from other folks as we go. This one is just about the general background. I’ll give more specifics about things I think are important in upcoming posts.

I have the sense that what is happening now in the sciences will have as much impact on future theological developments as the invention of writing had on accuracy of cultural transmission of revelation (the preservation of scripture, what made the redactors able to do their work), or the printing press (the dissemination of scripture, which basically fired the Reformation).

We tend to think of science as having arrived at some advanced point, with just a few details remaining to be filled in. (This same conceit was common in the late 19th century.) What if we are barely at the beginning, with just a glimmer of where it can lead us?

And especially, what if we learn more and more that points to a Creator, and Design, in very powerful ways, something more than just an anthropic principle (not knocking it), something that is so clear that no rational person can really deny it, and would be embarrassed to be seen trying to? If you cannot imagine any possible fact or set of facts that would lead in that direction, you need to get out more…

Continue reading “The next great awakening? Part 1”

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Jul 23 2008

Jerry Pournelle on education, Intelligent Design, etc.

Jerry Pournelle (the wikipedia article linked here gives short shrift to Pournelle’s science and engineering background) has some thoughts on the dangers of trying to ban the teaching of Intelligent Design in the schools, and he starts with the background of public education and goes from there.

What is the purpose of public schools? One looks in vain for guidance in the Constitution of the US, or in the early constitutions of most states. Education didn’t become a right until well after the Civil War, and didn’t become a federal right until fairly recently.

Continue reading “Jerry Pournelle on education, Intelligent Design, etc.”

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