The Unexpected Perspective
The Implications of Darwin and the Big Bang for Christians ... and Everyone Else

Perspectives

This post looks at a new book on three distinctly different ways for Christians to think about creation.

As I've said many times, we all have a tendency to try to organize ideas and information into neat little "either/or" categories, then overlook or obscure any nuance or subtlety.  A great example of this concerns Christianity and beliefs about evolution: if you believe in modern science, you'll certainly believe in Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection, and also probably reject what the Bible says; and conversely, if you believe the Bible, you'll reject modern science.

            My book, The Unexpected Perspective, shows why this is a false dichotomy and a vast oversimplification.  In this post I'd like to introduce you to another book that explores in greater detail why there is no religion/science dichotomy.  The book is call Old Earth or Evolutionary Creationism? and was recently published by InterVarsity Press.  I'll explain in a moment why I think it's worth your while to pick up this book, but let me first give you some background on how it came to be published, which is an interesting story in itself.

            The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) is one of the largest Protestant Christian denominations in the USA.  By its own estimate, most of its members are young earth creationists.  That means they believe the Bible literally, including the idea that the world is no more than about 6,000 years old. They also believe in a literal seven day creation cycle; that all humans descend from an original pair named Adam and Eve; and that Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection is hogwash.

            The Southern Baptists appear to reinforce the stereotype that religion and science are mutually exclusive.  But the SBC realizes this is an oversimplification; and to their credit, they've sought out a dialogue with two key Christian groups who look at science and the Bible differently than does the SBC: Biologos and Reasons to Believe (RTB).  Both Biologos and Reasons to Believe are composed of people who are simultaneously committed Christians and committed scientists.  Biologos was founded by Francis Collins, the head of the Human Genome Project, and Reasons to Believe was founded by Hugh Ross, who holds a PhD in Astronomy and spent five years as a postdoc at California Institute of Technology.  By no means can one consider either founder to be a scientific slouch!

            As such, this new book represents a dialogue between three groups of committed Christians about the relationship between modern science and Christianity, with the young earth creationist group (the Southern Baptists) posing questions to the other two groups (Reasons to Believe and Biologos).  So just what are some of the similarities and differences in their viewpoints?

            The first concerns the age of the universe.  While young earth creationists believe the universe is only about 6,000 years old, based upon a literal interpretation of Genesis, both Reasons to Believe and Biologos embrace the evidence that the universe started with a Big Bang and is about 13.8 billion years old.  This is hardly surprising given that RTB's founder is an astronomer, and Deborah Haarsma, the president of Biologos, has a PhD in Astrophysics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

            The second is that both accept the reality of Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection, but they do differ on the extent of its applicability.  The key to the disagreement appears to be the question of "common descent".  Common descent is the theory that all creatures have a common origin.  In particular, humans and lower primates such as apes, monkeys and orangutans all have a genetic common ancestor.  Biologos embraces this idea, as do I.  In contrast, Reasons to Believe maintains that God created humans separately and specially: we do not have common ancestry with the lower primates, or any other organisms, for that matter, even though we appear to share a large amount of DNA.

            Reasons to Believe further insists that the literal narrative of Genesis is true.  With respect to humans, that means God created Adam and Eve in a special way, and that all humans are descended from that pair.  Reasons to Believe and the Southern Baptists are very much in agreement on this, in contrast to Biologos.  Much of the book focuses on various aspects of the question, are humans common descendants (the Biologos viewpoint, as well as that of Darwinians) or a special creation (the Reasons to Believe viewpoint)?

            SBC posed a broad range of questions to Reasons to Believe and Biologos.  These questions covered not only biology and genetics, but also geology, anthropology, the fossil evidence, and a range of issues related to Biblical interpretation.  While one may disagree with their thinking, one cannot accuse the Southern Baptists of not giving serious thought to the entire subject.

            As mentioned earlier, the people at Reasons to Believe are serious, competent scientists, so one must ask, what scientific evidence could they present that would support the idea of Adam and Eve as a real pair of humans, from whom all are descended?  The RTB spokesman cited the evidence of mitochondrial Eve and Y-chromosomal Adam.  That's evidence that all females can trace ancestry to a single woman called mitochondrial Eve and all males can trace ancestry to a single male called Y-chromosomal Adam.  Until recently, data suggested that mitochondrial Eve and Y-chromosomal Adam lived about 80,000 to 100,000 apart from one another, thus they never could have been a couple.  RTB says new research suggests they lived at the same time, but the spokesman never cites any specific evidence.

            Let's assume, for a moment, that RTB is correct in saying that mitochondrial Eve and Y-chromosomal Adam could have been contemporaries.  The spokesman for Biologos, however, presented the argument that there never could have been an original pair simply because the original population of humans could not have been fewer than 5,000 or so, likely more.

            Biologos presents a strong set of arguments to counter those made by RTB.  I think the case could been even stronger, but there was obviously an editorial limitation placed on the participants.  So what additional evidence might Biologos have presented?   The work of Francisco Ayala, cited in my book, is an excellent example of this evidence.  Ayala traced the DRB1 gene, present in humans and other primates, back to identify a common ancestor who lived about 105 million years ago.  We, and our non-human primate cousins, all have one of the variations of this gene.  The variations in this gene are excellent evidence that there could not have been just an original pair of humans.  Note that there are other forms of evidence supporting the Biologos argument, but Ayala's evidence seems pretty compelling.

            But apparently it still isn't sufficiently compelling to convince lots of evangelicals to reconsider the "common descent" issue.  I sensed frustration on the part of the Biologos spokesman in chapter 10.  No matter how much evidence, and how many compelling arguments, he couldn't get RTB to budge on the question of "common descent". 

The reason, I believe, has to do with the "historicity" of Adam and Eve.  Evangelical Christians believe that there had to have been a literal Adam and Eve.  Absent that, in their minds, it's "game over".  On the surface, it appears that evangelicals are faced with the choice of either accepting the science that there couldn't have been an original pair, or accepting the Biblical account.  Looks like "game over", unless someone can present a case that includes three key elements: 1) a real life Adam and Eve; 2) consistency with the available evidence for common descent; and 3) consistency with the Biblical narrative.

            Elsewhere, Biologos builds a strong case that Adam and Eve may have been archetypes, not real individuals.  Unfortunately, that tends to leave many evangelical Christians cold.  Thus, even though the Biologos case for common descent being consistent with the Bible may be strong, it feels like "game over" to unpersuaded evangelicals.

            I think Biologos is right, so how might they reframe their arguments so that they might be more appealing to many "un-persuaded" evangelical Christians?  For the answer, consider the argument I make in my book, The Unexpected Perspective.  Let me briefly summarize the argument.  I believe modern science is correct in saying that the original group of humans could not have been fewer than five or ten thousand.  The evidence looks pretty strong.  How, then, could there have been an historical Adam and Eve?  The simple answer is that Adam and Eve could have been two people in the original multi-thousand human population.  They were merely representative of everyone. 

            Is such an interpretation consistent with the Bible?  Actually, yes.  Assume for a moment that there had been just an original pair, Adam and Eve.  They had children, Cain and Abel.  Cain married a woman who bore a son, Enoch.  Well, if Adam and Eve were the literal first humans, who were the parents of Cain's wife? If Adam and Eve were the parents of us all, Cain's wife was also a child of Adam and Eve, so Cain married his sister!  Does that mean that incest is okay because it's in the Bible?  Ugh!!

            Another piece of evidence is found at Genesis 4:15.  As is well known, Cain killed his brother Abel.  As punishment, God banished Cain, sentencing him to a life of wandering.  Cain protested to God, saying that if anyone found Cain, they would kill him.  God reassures Cain that won't happen. 

            Well, if there had been  just an original pair, that dialogue would have been moot because there wouldn't have been anyone else to kill Cain.  But the words are there, suggesting that there were other humans besides Adam and Eve and their descendants.  What this means is that the Bible is more in accord with the science of an original human population of many thousand than with the original pair scenario. 

            As such, by adopting the Biologos position, the Southern Baptists could actually address each of their major concerns: a) a real life pair named Adam and Eve; and b) consistency with the evidence of modern science.  If the Southern Baptists rely upon the RTB position, there will be two key problems: a) it will imply incest; and b) it will not be in accord with the genetic evidence.

            Unquestionably, evangelical Christians believe it is critical to have a real life Adam and Eve.  If Biologos, and other Christian groups who embrace Darwinian science, hope to win the hearts and minds of evangelicals such as the Southern Baptists, they'll need to provide a way to embrace both common descent, and everything that goes with that, and a literal Adam and Eve.  As discussed, there is such a way.

            There are many other dimensions to this book, in recognition of the fact that this is a multi-faceted issue.  I strongly commend it to a broad audience of readers, and thank all three groups – the Southern Baptist Convention, Biologos, and Reasons to Believe – for their dedicated efforts to find common ground.

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On the surface, there isn't any connection between Darwin and the Big Bang Theory, on one hand, and the debate about climate change on the other. This blog post explores how the two subjects actually share a connection.

You don't normally hear people talk about climate change and Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection in the same sentence, but I'd like to bust that convention.  I'm doing that because there actually are some important, and surprising, similarities about these two issues.

            The first similarity is that each issue is emblematic of cultural divide.  On one hand, those who believe in Darwin's theory tend also to believe in the reality of climate change.  Most adherents of the two theories generally think it's pretty much a "slam dunk" case.  On the other side, there is skepticism, some times profound doubt, about both theories.  Those who believe in both Darwin and climate change are genuinely shocked that others express doubt. 

            Second, in both cases, those who are shocked by the "doubters" tend to conclude that the "doubters" are just plain stupid; and when this comes up, I'm always reminded of comedian Ron White's famous line, "you can't fix stupid".    But in both cases, the source of the doubt is misunderstood.  It isn't stupidity, it's a difference in world view.  I happen to believe strongly in the reality of climate change, but one of my brother's has strong doubts.  He's well educated, including on matters of science, and I can assure you, he isn't stupid.  What, then, is the source of his doubt?  In his particular case, he's skeptical, in part, because he fears the climate debate is merely a pretext to increase government regulation.  That's probably not an unfound fear, as most of the prescriptions for fixing the problem mean much more government regulation, and possibly more intrusion into the lives of ordinary people.

            Third, I see a way to apply my "unexpected perspective" approach to resolve the issue.  I've heard reports that a number of people who are climate change "deniers" actually are interested in investing in things like wind and solar power.  Huh? Doesn't that sound strange?  Well, I heard a story of a reporter who visited a ranch in Texas with lots of oil wells pumping, and the owner of the ranch is a climate change skeptic.  On the very same ranch the reporter found windmills and solar panels.  The reporter pointed the seeming incongruity to the owner, who said, the oil wells, windmills and solar panels are put checks in my mail box each month.

            It's hard to argue with that logic.  The rancher was still a climate change skeptic, but he'd found a reason to want to do something about it.  That's similar to my argument about Christians embracing Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection.  In both cases, the "skeptic" is embracing something for a different set of reasons than those proffered previously.  My argument for Christians to embrace Darwin is that Darwin will reinforce fundamental Christian doctrines related to original sin, the Garden of Eden, and the imperfectability of mankind.  Those aren't the reasons an atheist scientist would embrace Darwin, but in my mind, they're really good reasons.  Likewise, the climate change skeptic may reject Al Gore's reasoning about the climate, but he'll do something that will put checks in his mail box each month.

            Fourth, as in the Darwin debate, there is actually a middle ground that tends to be overlooked.  In the case of Darwin and the Big Bang, a significant percentage of Christians actually accept the reality of the two theories.  Unfortunately, extremists on both ends (i.e., radical atheists on one side and young earth creationists on the other side) tend to drown out any discussion, leaving one the impression that it is an "either/or" issue: those in the "middle ground" on Darwin are lumped together with young earth creationists by atheists, and are grouped together with atheists by young earth creationists.  The same tends to happen with climate change.  The "middle ground" in this debate includes people who accept and acknowledge the reality of climate change, but have problems with some of the solutions.  I find myself in the "middle ground" on both of the two issues. 

So what is the "middle" ground" for people who accept the reality of climate change but reject the proposed solutions?  In a word, the "middle ground" is improved technology.   The climate change debate is reminiscent of Thomas Malthus's prediction of doom and gloom with respect to population.  The intellectual heirs of Malthus made similar arguments.  As an example biologist Paul Ehrlich, and a distinguished group called the Club of Rome, issued dire, apocalyptic predictions in the middle of the 20th century about our unsustainable future.  The apocalypse forecast by Malthus, Ehrlich, and the Club of Rome has never materialized, principally because of improvements in technology.  There is already evidence of the same occurring for alternative energy, and my personal prediction is that the carbon apocalypse is never going to occur, not because I'm denying climate change, but because technology will likely come to the rescue.

            This is clearly an "unexpected perspective" about climate change, but it can work.  So instead of berating climate change "skeptics", or heaping abuse upon them by referring to them as "deniers" (which sounds awfully much like a reference to those who deny the Holocaust), let me suggest a reframing of the problem.  Instead of focusing attention on how governments can reduce "carbon intensity" (i.e., the amount of carbon we throw into the atmosphere as a result of our daily activity), consider the following alternative questions:

  • How can people make money by taking carbon out of the atmosphere, or by preventing from getting in the atmosphere in the first place?
  • How can government encourage people to make money doing the above?

Simply reframing the problem through better questions actually helps to eliminate a divide.  It does so in the case of Darwin and the Big Bang, and it can do so in this case, too.

            Looking a little further into the climate change issue, just what could be done?  Well, for example, governments can do the following:

  • Fund research at universities and other research organizations

Governments routinely fund all kinds of scientific research, and universities routinely spin that research out into new businesses.  Some will fail, but others will succeed.  One of the key limitations to the expansion of wind and solar power relates to problems with battery storage.  If battery technology can be improved, there could be a tremendous expansion.   Funding that kind of research could be very helpful.

  • Provide tax incentives to encourage activities that reduce carbon footprints

Many governments offer incentives to invest in solar panels and windmills, for example.  Massachusetts, for example, this past summer passed a law mandating that the state's utilities buy 1.6 gigawatts of energy from offshore windfarms over the next decade.  This will help spur development of such windfarms.

  • Encourage investments in infrastructure

A key element that limits the expansion of wind and solar power is inadequate utility infrastructure.  Governments can overcome these limits by incentivizing the development of infrastructure.

  • Create an alternative energy version of the X Prize

The X Prize provided a $ 10 million award to the first company that could use the same rocket to fly two missions into space with a two week period.  At the time the prize was first offered, the dream of such space flight seemed distant.   The prize, however, succeeded in spurring the effort, and it was awarded several years ago.   The same approach could be employed to help spur alternative energy, or reduce the impact of carbon waste byproducts.

Lots of things can be done to help put more "checks in the mailbox".    The key, however, is to reframe the debate, taking it away from, "how do we mobilize government to fight climate change?", to "how do we put more and bigger checks in mailboxes because people did things that reduced carbon intensity?"  This re-framing is very much in the same spirit as the one I'm encouraging Christians to take with respect to Darwin and the Big Bang Theory.

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Fast growing economies in Africa and Asia are implementing "quick fix" power solutions that won't help battle climate change. This post explores ways to address the problem

            Sometimes, when you least expect it, you get slapped in the face by something you never, ever expected.  I had that happen recently while my wife and I were on a visit to Gambia, a small country in West Africa.  In this case, it's something that has potential major implications in the battle against climate change.

            Gambia is almost completely enveloped by Senegal.  The only part of the country not adjoining Senegal is its border on the Atlantic Ocean.  While we were there but a short time, we found the people of Gambia to be very friendly, and especially hardworking.  Like much of the rest of Africa, Gambia is growing pretty quickly.  Though still very poor, the economic situation is quickly changing.

            Which means that the demand for electric power is growing quickly; so quickly, that the country experiences frequent power outages, typically multiple times a day.  To cope with these shortages, Gambia and many other sub-Saharan power authorities are investing in emergency power solutions.  It's estimated that sub-Saharan Africa already has about 750 megawatts (MW) of such emergency power systems in place.  In Angola, it represents 18.1% of total capacity; in Uganda, it's 41.7% of capacity; and in Rwanda, it's 48.4% of capacity! Which leads me back to being slapped in the face.

            While at a market in Banjul, the country's capital, we happened to see the ship pictured above. It isn't your typical ship because its principal purpose is to serve as a portable power plant.  The Turkish ship, deployed in early 2018, is designed to help address Gambia's chronic power shortage. 

            The good news is that the "power ship" can be deployed in just a few weeks, whereas the typical power plant takes at least a year to construct, typically longer.  Moreover, it supplies power on a very consistent basis because it has very up to date generators.

            The bad news is that its power source is diesel fuel.  It's helping Gambia and other fast growing countries meet a power shortage, and just as efficiently spewing tons of additional carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

            But that isn't the slap in the face to which I'm referring.  Instead, it's that these types of plants may be better at solving Africa and Asia's severe power shortages more effectively, at least in the short term, than state of the art alternative energy such as solar PV and windmills.  I find that idea both shocking and disconcerting, and if you're concerned about global climate change, there's a good chance you do, too.  So let me explain why that in fact may be the case, and what needs to be done to change things.

            Before going any further, let me point out there is huge interest in solar and wind power in sub-Saharan Africa.  Many countries are already working hard to build solar generating capacity.  For example, Cape Verde hopes to get 50% of its power from solar by 2020; the island of Mauritius has a goal of 65% by 2028; and Madagascar wants 75% of it power to be solar by 2025.  They definitely deserve credit for ambitious thinking and goal setting!

            But while such solar goals are laudable, are they realistic?  An interesting paper by Saule Baurzhan and Glenn Jenkins, published in the journal Sustainability, builds a case that at least in the short term, the best way to reduce greenhouse gases in places like Africa is first to install highly efficient diesel power plants such as the "power ship" my wife and I saw in Gambia rather than a solar PV plant.  They acknowledge that at some future point, solar could become the better solution, just not now, and maybe not for 10 or 20 years!  Using a conventional net present value analysis, they argue that the diesel plant is the better choice today, and possibly for a number of years to come.

            If they're right, those of us committed to the reduction of global greenhouse gases have gotten a giant slap in the face!  Not only that, if there's a broad embrace of such thinking, it may serve to limit the growth of alternative energy over the next 10 -20 years in the very places that are on the front lines of the battle against climate change.

            So let's look at their argument to see if it makes sense.  If not, let's consider why not.  At the same time, let's consider the implications if they just happen to be right.

            The two authors are PhD economists at a university in Turkish Cyprus.  I gave the article to my son-in-law, who also happens to be both a PhD economist and an ardent supporter of greenhouse gas reduction.  He raised some concerns about their assumptions, as well as their methodology, discussed further below.

            So how do the authors get to the idea that a diesel powered plant could actually be a better way than a solar PV plant, at least in the short run, to reduce greenhouse gases?  It comes down to the following factors: 1) the comparative cost of the diesel plant and the solar plant; 2) the "capacity factors" of the respective power plants; 3) the poor quality of the existing power grids in these countries; 4) the lack of ability for the solar plant to provide power at certain times of the day; 5) the expected cost of diesel fuel; and 6) the expected cost of a ton of carbon dioxide emissions.

            The inability of the solar plant to work at certain hours, the authors note, means that it has a pretty low "capacity factor".  They readily acknowledge that the capacity factor of a solar plant in sub-Saharan Africa is significantly greater than one in Europe, given the fact that the Sun is much stronger in sub-Saharan Africa, but they point out that the capacity factor of a diesel plant is far greater.  This is because the diesel plant can theoretically operate 24/7, irrespective of whether or not the Sun is shining.  Unfortunately, most solar plants don't do very well at midnight. To be more specific, in their analysis they said the capacity factor for the solar plant would be 17.3, but it would be 66 for the diesel plant, a huge difference!  This capacity factor difference makes it possible for a comparatively small diesel plant to replace the old, inefficient system.  In the absence of good battery storage, you can't rely upon a solar plant to solve the problem. 

            The bottom line is that it would take a much larger solar plant to meet the same power needs as a diesel plant.  According to the authors, for a given capital cost, the diesel plant will generate 16 times as much power as the solar plant.  Much of the differential is due to the fact that the diesel plant can operate 24/7.  Based upon their analysis, they conclude that the best solution, at least in the short term, is for these countries to build highly efficient diesel power plants and get these new plants to become the base power source.  The power company can then use the old plants in reserve for peak power.  Converting these old plants into reserve power would, in and of itself, help reduce greenhouse gas emissions significantly in these countries.

            For countries like Gambia, facing both huge power growth needs and limited capital, it may be the economic equivalent of "game over".  Not what those of us who know the battle over greenhouse gas growth isn't in Europe or America, it's in places like sub-Saharan Africa, want to hear.  Which gets to the question, if the authors are correct, what can be done?

            I think there are several possible answers.  The first and most obvious is battery technology.  The authors did not consider an investment in battery storage as part of their analysis.  No doubt, they're right in saying that a solar PV plant without batteries could not serve as the base load for an electric system.  But what if you built a plant that either included batteries, or used a solar technology such as "concentrated solar power" that will permit the generation of solar power during the day, but stored until needed as peak power?  This is a technology that has been proven in Nevada.  The battery revolution led by Elon Musk and Tesla is also changing the economics of storage.  Not only that, but Tesla seems to be making a sport of how quickly it can install giant batteries in out of the way places.  Such speed could help to counter one of the obvious benefits of the "power ship".

            A second possible solution is to address the capital cost problem.  The diesel powered plant may be a better solution right now because it stretches the limited money of sub-Sahara African governments, but an alternative would be to provide long term financing using either a zero coupon bond, or a bond with interest payments delayed for a period.

            The third possible solution, of course, is the continued reduction in the cost of solar power.  The authors of the study cited above estimated that solar would be a better alternative than high efficiency diesel in 12 to 24 years.  Solar costs, of course, continue to plummet, so it wouldn't take a great deal of technological change to reduce that 12 to 24 year time frame dramatically.

            But there may be something that overrides all of the prior analysis.  That is that the core criterion used by the authors – the net present value of the solar plant is negative while it is positive for the diesel plant – may not be the right way to judge the project.  Instead, a better criterion might be something my son-in-law reminded of, what is referred to as real options.  The argument is that traditional net present value of cash flows is an inadequate method of analyzing an uncertain project.  By using a real options model, a project that otherwise has a negative net present value may, in fact, have a positive one.  Using real options, it may very well be that the solar PV plant, which appeared to be inferior compared with the diesel plant using a simple net present value of cash flows methodology, is in reality the better investment choice once one analyzes the cash flows using a real options model.  Using a real options methodology to value the projects should provide a more thorough consideration of the uncertainties surrounding the project.

            Is this a realistic possibility?  Yes, particularly given the fact that there is lots of uncertainty surrounding the economics of a solar plant, especially because solar technology keeps getting more favorable, in a way that the diesel plant isn't.

            Which brings us back to what I believe is the real question: what do you tell countries like Gambia to do, given a significant and growing power shortage and the need to increase capacity?  Things like the "power ship" are extremely attractive when you've got multiple daily power outages, growing power needs, and not much money in the bank.  How could you come up with a more attractive offer than the "power ship" that has zero emissions and could become part of the base load of the power grid?

            The ideal solution I believe would be some type of rapid installation solar plant and battery storage combination.  Or do you settle for an "almost as good" solution: a combination of things like the "power ship" in the short term, coupled with a longer term solar/battery installation?  While you may "hold your nose" at the "power ship" solution because it involves diesel, keep in mind that the "power ship" type system offers one very large benefit: the ability to take old, grossly inefficient systems and turn them into backup.   The authors found that could be very beneficial as a strategy to reduce greenhouse gases.  True, not an ideal solution, but possibly a "good enough" one in the short term.

            Probably the biggest challenge for those of us who advocate alternative energy as the best solution is that things like the "power ship" are so enticing.  So simple.  So easy to install.  A quick solution to the immediate problem.   But in the long term, it could be "so wrong". 

            But before proceeding any further, a more thorough analysis than that provided by the Sustainability journal article should be performed.  Beyond doing the simple cash flow analysis, as prescribed by the journal authors, a real options analysis should be considered.  Not only that, there should be a serious look given both to battery technology, as well as "concentrated solar power". 

            If you're leading a sub-Saharan Africa country that has a power shortage, and your existing infrastructure is pretty bad, things like the "power ship" are mighty tempting.  But when you consider climate change, likely also shortsighted.  Which makes it all the more important to help power authorities in places like sub-Saharan Africa do a more thorough analysis, and provide them an easy to implement clean energy solution to the power problem that leaves things like "power ships" in the dust.

           

 

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Scientists are getting closer to synthesizing yeast. What are the implications?

Chromosomes are a core constituent of life.  Humans each have 23 pairs of them.  Every other living creature has them, too.  Even yeast … something you don't normally think of as a living creature … has chromosomes.  I understand that yeast has sixteen chromosomes.

 

That wouldn't be particularly newsworthy until you consider that it has now been reported that scientists around the world have synthesized six of the sixteen chromosomes in yeast. (see Synthesizing Yeast).  There is hope that the remainder will be synthesized before the end of 2017.

 

Yeast is obviously something very simple, and the significance of this may not be particularly apparent.  Beer lovers, of course, may beg to differ.  Who knows, could the ability to synthesize yeast, an important element in making beer, lead to better beer?  I don't know whether we can count on better lagers, ales, and stouts in your steins in the future, but most likely, we'll end up with the ability to synthesize more complex chromosomes.

 

A little bit of speculation may lead one to the idea of synthesizing far more complex organisms some time in the future.  Does that sound a bit like "playing God"?  Obviously, there will be lots of questions that need to be answered along the way.  In my mind, Christians need to be part of any such discussions.

 

Once again, a scientific discovery points towards two dramatically different outcomes, one good … and one potentially very bad.  The ability to synthesize chromosomes could provide many benefits.  The prospect of better beer is a very mundane potential one.  However, as has been the case over and over, the potential for benefit from a scientific discovery once again brings the potential for serious, if unintended, consequences.  We need to proceed cautiously.  Moreover, in my mind, Christians need to be right in the middle of the discussion.

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New science and technology can hold great promise ... as well as great peril. We embrace the positive, but must be mindful of potential downsides. This post explores these two sides with respect to the emerging science of "brain hacking".

Unless you are a Martian who just arrived on a UFO, you know that the world is becoming both increasingly complicated, and facing ever bigger, seemingly monumental, problems.  Some days it really does seem as though the sky is falling! 

 

There is both good news and bad news.  The good news is that we've been here before.  Doomsday has been repeatedly predicted, but so far it hasn't arrived.  For example, Thomas Malthus predicted in 1798 in An Essay on the Principle of Population that population growth was unsustainable: population was increasing faster than the available supply of food, and thus the world would literally run out of food!  About 50 years ago, similar arguments were made by Malthus's intellectual descendants.  Paul Ehrlich, a biologist at Washington University in St. Louis, as well as a group known as the Club of Rome, made similar predictions.  MIT in the summer of 1970 gathered a group of distinguished experts to address the problem.  Out of the gathering came a book titled The Limits to Growth, which made Malthusian-like predictions.  Likewise, dire predictions have repeatedly been made that the world would run out of oil and other energy reserves.  The funny thing is, these dire predictions never seem to materialize!

 

There's a common reason for this good news – technology keeps getting better.  Malthus, Ehrlich, the Club of Rome, and others predictors of doom never adequately seem to consider how improvements in science and technology will alter the equation. 

 

So what's the bad news?  It actually has to do with the very science and technology that appears to keep rescuing all of us from doom.  You ask, what could possibly be wrong with science and technology that keeps "saving our bacon"?  I see two problems.  First, new science and technology always seem to raise important new ethical dilemmas for us.   As an example, scientists have developed amazing new technology that permits cloning.  The ability to do this raises a whole host of issues.  For example, many if not most people think it's probably okay to clone an animal such as a sheep, but totally reject the idea of cloning humans.  Where should the line on cloning be drawn?  How should decisions be made?  Christians naturally argue that the Bible should be the source of decision-making, but I don't recall anything in the Bible that remotely addresses the question of the suitability of cloning, for example. We are, of course, admonished not to "play God", but is cloning really that?  Maybe ... but in some cases, maybe not. 

 

Second, as our science and technology become ever more sophisticated, there is a tendency for us all to believe that our salvation lies in science and technology.  Needless to say, Christians have, or should have, a problem with that.  After all, there are clear limits to science and technology.

 

When issues related to the ethics of science and technology arise, Christians need to be at the table, participating fully in the discussion.  We need to be taken seriously.  That's one of the key reasons I believe it's important for Christians to come up with a better answer concerning Charles Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection, as well as the Big Bang Theory.  As I've repeatedly noted, to the extent that non-Christians perceive that Christians are naïve about these scientific theories, they're less likely to take us seriously on some, if not all, of these other science and technology related ethical and moral dilemmas.

 

So what are some of the top ethical dilemmas related to science and technology?  The John J. Reilly Center for Science, Technology and Values at Notre Dame University in South Bend, Indiana prepares an annual list of top issues.  Their 2017 list was published a few weeks ago (see http://news.nd.edu/news/reilly-center-releases-2017-list-of-emerging-ethical-dilemmas-and-policy-issues-in-science-and-technology/). 

 

Most of these emerging issues are not things that the average person spends much, if any, time pondering.  For example, the Reilly Center is concerned about what it calls "brain hacking."  (see http://reillytop10.com/2016/12/14/brain-hacking/).  Scientists have developed devices that a person can wear on the head to measure EEG waves.  EEG provides a measure of what your brain is doing.   Measuring EEG waves could be beneficial in certain circumstances.  An excellent example is protection of your computer.  Password protection of your computer is a clumsy, highly inadequate solution: people hate passwords; the passwords they use can generally be easily cracked; and really secure password protection systems tend too be too awkward and complicated to use.  After all, everyone knows that you should have passwords that are at least 8 characters long, use both capitals and lower case letters, numbers and special characters such as the @ sign, and should not use common words, but such passwords are very hard to remember.  Thus, oftentimes when people actually create such passwords, they write the password on a Post It note and stick on the machine, available for all to see!  To the rescue may come EEG brainwaves.  Each person's EEG brainwaves are unique, so if there is a simple way to measure them, they could provide very robust protection of one's user data.

 

EEG waves aren't a practical solution, at least not yet, but what happens when it becomes practical to rely upon your unique EEG "signature" to secure access to your computer?

The concern is that a hacker might surreptitiously hack into a headset, steal the information and gain a whole host of private information.  Think about it?  It's one thing for a hacker to steal your password, then access your computer.  In this case, not only would the hacker gain access to your computer, he'd also potentially have access to your private thoughts!  I don't know about you, but that sounds pretty creepy to me.

 

As with most everything science and technology related, there are both good things and bad things.  The question is, of course, how can the benefits be gained without the negative downsides?  Who should regulate these activities?  Do Christians have any unique perspectives on this?  Now it may be premature to get concerned about brain hacking, at least for the moment.  I can assure, however, there are other science and technology issues that are definitely relevant today.  Christians need to be both aware of them, as well as be prepared to offer an informed opinion about them.  We'll discuss more of these in upcoming posts.

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Humans are endowed with a great capacity to make quick decisions. Like everything else, there are pluses and minuses. This capability worked beautifully for our ancestors, but creates many problems for us today.

Our world is filled with complexity and nuance, yet we always seem to try to reduce it to black and white choices.  Evolutionary psychologists say that this tendency has actually helped us to survive and thrive â€" it is beneficial in an evolutionary sense.  You don't have to believe in evolution, however, to realize that the way humans live today is dramatically different from what it was like during the Stone Age.  Back then, humans were often in dangerous situations.  We still get into them today, but back then it might well have been a daily occurrence.  It was important to be able to distinguish friend from foe, as well as dangerous versus safe animals.  Doubtless, those who didn't make good choices in that regard didn't survive long enough to reproduce.  Thus, the gene pool of human "survivors" was no doubt biased towards those who could make quick decisions about who and what was friendly, and unfriendly.

We are the beneficiaries of that genetic "inheritance", but it doesn't always benefit us in our modern, complex world as it did in Stone Age societies.  Thus, when confronted with complex, nuanced situations, we still tend to classify things as black and white, good or bad, or either/or.  Besides the genetic provenance, most likely we also tend to do this because we only have limited time, or feel we have limited time, to make decisions.  After all, most people are pretty busy!  Moreover, when confronted with a dangerous situation, or at least one perceived as dangerous, like our Stone Age forebears, we're not going to consider subtleties and nuances!

As with other human behaviors, the tendency to reduce decisions to "black and white" has a positive side as well as a negative side.  The positive side, of course, is that it does help us survive and navigate difficult, dangerous situations.  The downside, of course, is that we tend to gloss over complexity and nuance and go for the black and white choices, to our detriment when the matter really isn't just "black and white".

If you doubt this, take a look at the picture below.  You'll tend to see one of two things: 1) a side view of a vase; or 2) the profile of two human heads facing one another.  Sometimes one or the other is hard to pick out.  Now try to look at the picture and hold both the image of the faces and the vase in your mind at the same time.  Nearly impossible to do â€" you can see either one image or the other, but you can't see both at the same time.  This is somewhat similar to the way our mind thinks in "black and white".

When it comes to the question, "how was the universe created, and how did humans emerge?", the tendency to seek out "black and white" very much applies.  Those of you who have read my book, The Unexpected Perspective, know that it applies to the question of evolution versus the Bible.  There are at least seven different viewpoints on the issue, ranging from evolutionary naturalism on one end to young earth creationism on the other, and many shades of grey in the middle.  The interesting thing is that many who haven't spent time thinking about the issue tend to think it's a black and white issue: you either believe in evolutionary naturalism or you must believe in young earth creationism.

Of course this is a huge oversimplification, and a false dichotomy, a false choice.  What I've found interesting is to meet many, many people who have said they're somewhere in the middle of the continuum.  Many have said they can easily see how Christianity and Darwin fit together nicely.  That fact that can happen testifies to the idea that the either/or choice is a false one, and that there is a lot of nuance between the extremes.

Unfortunately, those on the extremes tend to be the people who are most invested in the issue, and devote the most time to it.   This, too, is probably natural, because most people are too busy doing other things to worry about these issues.  After all, the average person has more important things to do on a daily basis than worry about some tradeoff between God and science.  That leaves it to the true believers, those on the extremes, to set the terms of the debate.  All subtlety is lost.  As such, viewed from the outside, the debate looks like an either/or proposition: either you support Richard Dawkins, and those like him who believe in evolutionary naturalism, or you must be a young earth creationist who believes Genesis is literally true!

The funny thing is, this same principle seems to apply to many important social issues.  Take, for example, the issue of gun control in the USA.  On one end of the spectrum is the National Rifle Association, a group that says it has about five million members.  As a percentage of the total US population, that's about 1.5 percent.  The group influences gun policy and gun rights far out of proportion to its membership.  On the other extreme are those who more or less favor significant restrictions on gun ownership.  Unfortunately, all nuance in the debate is lost, and extremists on each side have painted the issues as purely either/or: the NRA would have you believe that ANY restriction on gun ownership puts the country a step away from repeal of the Second Amendment.  Conversely, extremists on the other side see significant restrictions on gun ownership as the only way to limit gun violence.  Both sides paint a black and white, either/or world.

You can look at other issues and reach the very same conclusions.  In the case of abortion rights, on one end are those who want absolutely no restrictions on a woman's right to have an abortion, effectively "abortion on demand".  On the other side are those who want to outlaw legal abortions in all cases.  Unfortunately, once again, while there is a range of views in between these extremes, the world is painted by the extremists as either/or.  As an example, even strongly "pro life" advocates generally tend to believe abortion may be acceptable in certain circumstances (e.g., in the case of rape or incest, or if it endangers the life of the mother).   

The issues of entitlements reform (i.e., reforms to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid) are painted in similar ways by their respective sides.  Same tends to be true for climate change: at one extreme are those who believe that rises in carbon dioxide and other gases in the atmosphere are speeding us to an environmental Armageddon in the next fifty years; and on the other side are those who think it's all a hoax.

This capacity to define issues in black and white has helped humans survive.  Yes, occasionally the average person has seen a dangerous situation where it really didn't exist (what's called a "false positive"), but while that is annoying, it is far better than a "false negative", where someone failed to appreciate a real threat and "ended up dead."  We all have a genetic legacy of being able to assess situations in black and white terms and make quick decisions to avoid danger.  Unfortunately, that genetic provenance has led us to perceive a range of other situations in similar black and white terms, to our detriment.   

The good news, of course, is that when someone can get humans to focus on an issue for at least a certain period of time, we humans do have the capacity to appreciate the details and nuance of most any issue.  We can see that there is more than the either/or, black and white of the extremes.  The challenge is to get people to take time to pay attention long enough.  So when we take a little time, we can appreciate that the science versus the Bible issue, as well as each of the other four I mentioned above, is not a black and white one.  In an ever more complex, time constrained world, and with more and more issues to consider, that seems to be getting harder and harder to do, and the unintended consequences are predictible.

 

 

 

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A new solar panel technology points towards "hockey stick" improvements in the battle against carbon emissions

            Besides your typical hockey arena, the most likely place you'll encounter a hockey stick is in a business plan or a startup business "pitch deck".  Actually, you should be very surprised if you DON'T see one there.

            A "hockey stick" in a business proposal is almost always a projection of rapidly increasing sales, profits, or both.  It gets the name because the graph invariably looks like the sticks that hockey players use, like the stick on the left in the graphic above.  Things start off slowly (the blade of the stick), then rapidly turn upward and head towards the heavens (the main part of the stick).

            What might a startup business plan "pitch deck" look like?  How about, sales in year one of $ 50,000, then $ 1,000,000 in year two, and $ 20,000,000 in year three?   Accompanying that will be a giant loss in year one, breakeven in year two, and $ 8 million in profits in year three.

            Don't bet the money in your wallet on any of those year three results.

            "Hockey sticks" always look appealing, but real "hockey stick" results are about as common as seeing a unicorn skating on real ice. 

            But besides hockey arenas, one place you actually see them, both in graphic form and in reality, is in technology.  Moore's Law – the doubling of the number of transistors on a chip every 18 months or so – is a real life technological "hockey stick".  And it's almost 55 years old – or long, if you look at on a graph.  It's an unbelievable "hockey stick", and without doubt, you've benefitted immensely from it, whether you knew it or not.

            There's another technological "hockey stick" that, like Moore's Law, is having a profound impact.  This one has to do with the efficiency of solar photovoltaic panels. When you look at improvements in solar panel efficiency in a graph, you'll see a veritable "hockey stick" on the page.

            The solar panel "hockey stick" just got a little longer.  Recently, Professor Hiroki Misawa and his Japanese research team reported that they've created solar panels that are almost 85% efficient, about double the last solar panel technological breakthrough, which was reported just last year. 

             What the Professor Hiroki Misawa and his Japanese have actually created is a "golden sandwich", described below.

             Here's a quick look at the solar panel "hockey stick": 

  • When Bell Labs created the first solar panel in the 1950's, it had about 1% efficiency, meaning that about 1% of the light was converted into useful energy
  • In 1960, researchers created a panel with 14% efficiency
  • In 1992, a group at the University of South Florida developed a thin film panel rated at 15.9% efficiency
  • In 2015, other scientists developed a panel with 22% efficiency
  • In 2016, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory pushed a panel up to 29.8% efficiency
  • Just last year, other scientists created a panel with 44.5% efficiency.
  • Professor Misawa now has an 85% efficient solar panel.

The bad news, if any, is that we're pretty near the top of the hockey stick.  After all, no matter researchers do, they're not got to get more than 100% efficiency.

            Besides the breathtaking increase in efficiency, the other headline is how Professor Misawa and his team got to 85% efficiency.  As mentioned above, the solar panel prototype has a thin film of gold sandwiched between other substrates.   The Japanese research was published in Nature Nanotechnology.   Misawa and his research team sandwiched a semiconductor, a 30-nanometer titanium dioxide thin-film, between a 100-nanometer gold film and gold nanoparticles to enhance light absorption.

             When the system is irradiated by light from the gold nanoparticle side, the gold film worked as a mirror, trapping the light in a cavity between two gold layers and helping the nanoparticles absorb more light.

             The team was able to harvest more than 85 percent of all visible light using the photoelectrode, which was far more efficient than previous methods. Gold nanoparticles are known to exhibit a phenomenon called localized plasmon resonance which absorbs a certain wavelength of light.

             When gold nanoparticles absorb light, the additional energy triggers electron excitation in the gold, which transfers electrons to the semiconductor. "The light energy conversion efficiency is 11 times higher than those without light-trapping functions," Misawa explained.

            Obviously, these are "just off the press" headlines, so it will take a little time before you can go down to your local solar energy contractor and buy a panel with 85% efficiency. But if the commercialization of previous solar technological breakthroughs is any guide, it shouldn't take too long before such panels start showing up.  After all, scientists only developed panels with 22% efficiency fairly recently, but such panels are presently available in the marketplace.  Most panels, however, produce solar power with between 14 and 21% efficiency.  

          Just like other high efficiency solar panels, those that will be based upon this new technology will very likely be very expensive.  That's because not only is it new technology, the core of it is a thin film of gold.  While the gold layer is only a few microns thick, gold is still gold, costing more than $ 1,000/ troy ounce.  However, the fact that an 85% efficient panel will likely be nearly four times as efficient as highly efficient ones on the market today, it will likely take only a faction of these new panels to generate as much as today's panels.  For example, a panel that can generate power at 85% efficiency should produce as much power as four panels that produce solar at 21% efficiency.  Obviously, it takes more than just panels to make solar installation, but you get the point.

          As a result, the cost of the typical solar installation has been going down quickly.  In fact, on a graph it almost looks like the hockey stick on the right side in the graphic above.  A decade ago the average cost of a home solar system was $ 52,920 before tax credit.  Now it is down to $ 18,840 before tax credits.  This "inverted hockey stick" has a name – Swanson's Law.  Swanson's Law states that the price of solar photovoltaic modules decreases 20% with each doubling of worldwide capacity of solar power capacity.

          Competition in solar panel manufacturing is, to put it mildly, brutal.  There's been a huge shakeout in the industry.  Quite a number of firms, including many in the USA, have exited the marketplace.  The industry is dominated by a number of low cost Chinese producers.

          That might be the end of the story, except when you consider the "hockey stick" of solar panel efficiency.  Obviously, the emergence of new technology is rapidly changing the game.  Which points back at something often overlooked in the race the deal with carbon emissions.

          There's a secret weapon in the battle in the battle against carbon; it's the real "driver" of the "hockey stick": technological change.  After all, its technological change that has driven Swanson's Law and the dramatic improvements in solar panel efficiency.  That's unlikely to change anytime soon.

          The point is, if you want to have a real impact on carbon emissions, focus more attention on technology.  Technology, particularly the basic research type, is creating the dramatic improvements that make solar power a viable alternative to coal, oil, and natural gas.  If we're serious about trying to reduce greenhouse gas emissions – and most people are – then our focus should be on doing more of the type of research that Professor Misawa and his associates are doing.  Of course, what these researchers are doing is not a technological panacea, but it should produce improvements, often on a dramatic scale. 

          Lots of ink is spilled about loosening government regulations over the environment.  Such loosening, in my mind, isn't usually a good idea.  However, it also doesn't place us at the gates of Armageddon, as many people are fearful.  Instead of focusing on regulations, a better approach I believe is to concentrate more resources on basic and applied research.  Fund basic research because it often produces results such as those coming out of Professor Misawa's laboratory in Japan.  Fund applied research because it can do the same thing downstream.

            Hockey sticks won't be disappearing from business plan "pitch decks" anytime soon.  Let's hope the same is true for technological "hockey sticks".  The best way to make sure happens to fund more basic and applied science research.
 

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The USA Could Simultaneously Counter China and Reduce Carbon Emissions

            If you need to kill two birds, the timeless wisdom is, better to do it with one stone.  

            A great new way to do it may have just made an appearance – a way to address two very different, but nevertheless extremely important, problems facing the West.

            Problem number one: how to deal with climate change

            Problem number two: how to counter China's increasing economic assertiveness on the world stage.

            While most people haven't generally thought about these two issues at the same time, it now makes sense to do so.   That's because by addressing the two issues together, there may be a great way to "kill two birds with one stone".  Let's consider how.

            Begin with problem number one – how to deal with climate change.  Lots of efforts are underway to reduce the risks of putting more carbon in the atmosphere.  The problem is that attention isn't adequately focused on where the real problem is.  The good news: to the credit of the people and government in California, huge efforts are being made to reduce the carbon footprint, and even become "carbon neutral" in a few decades;  and even though there has been considerable growth in the state over the past 10 to 15 years, the carbon footprint has been reduced by 13%, a real accomplishment!   The bad news is that California emits only about 1% of the world's total carbon, so no matter how effective the Golden State is, it really isn't making much of a difference with the worldwide problem.   Unfortunately, and sadly, for all of the "patting on the back" that Californians are doing, what they're doing to stop worldwide climate change is, frankly, largely meaningless on a global scale.

            The same is true in the rest of the USA, as well as in other parts of the West.  That's because, unfortunately, while the USA and the European Union are making big reductions in their carbon emissions, those reductions are being offset by increases in places like Asia and Africa.  Net result?  Virtually no worldwide reduction.  If we hope to solve the problem and reduce worldwide emissions, we need to do more than reduce emissions in the West.  Instead, we need to have a real impact in reducing carbon in Asia and Africa.

            Which brings me to problem number two.  China has not only expanded its own economy dramatically over the past 25 years, it is now projecting its economic power outside the country.  The best example of this is what is called the "One Belt, One Road" initiative, also referred to as the "Belt and Road Initiative" (BRI for short).  Started in 2013, BRI is a multi-year project to invest $ 4.0 trillion US dollars worth of investments in 65 countries, representing 70% of the world's population, 55% of world GDP, and 75% of energy reserves.

            China is quite serious. 

            The rest of the world is beginning to take notice, including the USA.  In fact, a bill has been introduced in Congress, with support from the Trump Administration, to create a new body with authority to do $ 60 billion in development financing.  That's only a small fraction of what China is doing, but it's a good start.  "People are waking up to what China is doing and see that we have to counter that," US Representative Ted Yoho, a Republican from Florida, recently told the Wall Street Journal.  The proposed new agency could help fund infrastructure projects, providing at least some counterweight to what China is trying to do.

            This new agency could "kill two birds with one stone" by focusing on financing infrastructure projects that simultaneously promote economic development AND reduce carbon emissions.    Developing economies in Asia and Africa need large investments in power generation, for example.  Why not use such an agency to encourage the development of new sources of clean power, as well as help with the conversion/removal of existing plants that generate large amounts of carbon emissions?  The economics of low or no carbon emission projects become more compelling by the day.  Why not use such an agency to promote this, especially since it's pretty clear that to meet carbon emission reduction goals, old "dirty" power capacity need to be taken out of commission more quickly.

            Besides direct investment, such an agency could provide incentives for other financial institutions to invest in such projects.  The financing demands are huge, so such help would likely be very beneficial.

            Creating a Western counterweight to China's Belt and Road Initiative, one focused on investments to prevent climate change, could fill the gap in the Paris Climate Accord.  The "gap" isn't the pullout of the USA (though we shouldn't have pulled out).  Instead, the real "gap" is that it doesn't provide a good way to address the problem of growing emissions in Africa and Asia.

            The USA isn't the only country that wants to counter the increasing economic weight of China.  Canada, the European Union, Japan, Australia, and other countries want to do the same.  There's no reason they couldn't join the USA in such an effort.  Like the USA, those countries want both to counter China's increasing clout, as well as reduce the impact of carbon emissions.

            China's BRI focuses on transportation infrastructure such as roads, railroads, and ports.  But while projects such as Hambantota, a port that China built for Sri Lanka, then re-possessed by China when Sri Lanka defaulted on its loan obligations, gets most of the attention, there's also a big energy component to BRI.  This energy component should really raise concerns because China appears to be focusing on coal and hydropower.  As an example, it's building a lot of coal-fired power plants in Pakistan.

             Unquestionably, lots of developing countries want and need such infrastructure investments.  Unfortunately, if the USA and other Western countries try to counter BRI with alternative transportation infrastructure projects, we'll probably just end up in a bidding war.  Instead, if we focus our investment on clean energy, we'll get the following benefits: 1) the promotion of clean energy; and 2) an attractive alternative to what the Chinese are doing.

            Why do I say that energy projects will be more impactful?  It's because these countries need power in order to build their economies, likely more than they need other forms of infrastructure.  We can help them get this infrastructure, and make certain that it is clean energy.  Clean energy is already highly competitive in an economic sense.  It just happens to have hugely important added benefit of being much better for  the environment.

            In particular, the USA should focus attention on power plants in India and Pakistan.  As part of BRI, China is in the process of helping these countries meet their voracious appetites for new power by building coal and hydropower facilities.  If these new coal plants are built, it will work against all of the efforts of California, and other places, to reduce the carbon footprint.  Not only that, but the more the Chinese help built the economies of India and Pakistan, the less influence the West will have in these places in the future.

            As a result, we could offer India and Pakistan (and other countries, for that matter) two starkly different options: dirty coal power from China or clean power financed by the West.  Given such a choice, which do you think public opinion on those places will support?  I'm confident that people in these countries like clean air just as much as you do.  Not only that, they are now just as aware of the risks of climate change as you are, maybe even more.  Moreover, given that people in much of Asia and Africa are already suspicious of the Chinese, I think the answer is fairly clear which alternative they'd choose, if just given the chance.

            Is this a panacea?  Absolutely not!  Will it be an effective counterweight to China?  If well thought out and properly executed, probably yes. 

            By focusing on energy infrastructure investment, the USA and its partners can address real needs in these developing countries.  At the same time, by focusing investment on clean energy, they can accomplish a large part of the goal of either eliminating existing "dirty" capacity or adding "clean" capacity.

            If the West focuses its "BRI response" on clean energy, it will provide these countries in Africa and Asia with an attractive alternative to China's offer.  Of course, the Chinese may respond by offering clean energy alternatives, too.  While it doesn't do anything about China's "hidden political agenda for BRI", at least it will stop the proliferation of coal fired plants.

            Killing the two "birds" of "removing carbon" and "countering China" with the one stone of "a USA/Western alternative to China's Belt and Road Inititative" could make great sense.  Of course, we'll never know the answer unless we move from talk to action.  No time like now!

           

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The second reason Christians ought to love Darwin is because Darwin provides a way for the Garden of Eden to have been a real event, not simply an allegory.

THE SECOND REASON

            In my last post I described in a little more detail why Christians should love both Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection, as well as the Big Bang Theory.  Now I'd like to turn to the second reason: the implications for the reality of the Garden of Eden.

            From the time the Bible was first compiled in the early 4th century AD until the 18th century, pretty much anyone who believed in the Bible also believed that the account of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden really happened.  Christians, Jews and Muslims, all believers in the Garden of Eden, had no reason to suggest otherwise.  Since that time, the reality of the event has come into question.  This is particularly true when one considers some of the more recent scientific data that appear to contradict the idea that a single pair of humans, named Adam and Eve, were the first to inhabit the Earth, and all humans are descendants of that original pair.  Let's consider the evidence:

Daryl Domning

Daryl Domning is a paleontologist at Howard University in Washington, DC.  Domning has found considerable evidence that non-human mammals display the very same kind of bad behavior that we call sin in humans.  For example, chimpanzees are known to steal and deceive.   If Adam and Eve committed the original sin and passed it along to their descendants, how can one explain "sinful" behavior in non-human primates?  Surely, no one is suggesting that Adam and Eve were the parents of non-human mammals!

Mitochondrial Eve/Chromosomal Adam

In recent years genetic evidence has been found that traces humans back to an original man and woman.  The man has been referred to as Chromosomal Adam and the woman as Mitochondrial Eve.  Unfortunately, there is also evidence that these individuals did not live either at the same time or close to the same place, thus undercutting this as evidence of a real Garden of Eden. 

The Evidence of Francisco Ayala

Francisco Ayala is an evolutionary biologist at the University of California Irvine.  Ayala has identified what is called the DRB1 gene, one found not only in humans but in our genetic near-cousins such as the chimpanzee and gorilla.  Ayala's research shows that all of these mammals appear to have a single common ancestor about 60 million years ago.  At various points along the way, different groups split off.  The reason Ayala's research is important is that it shows that at no point could there have been only two humans.  In fact, according to Ayala, at no point could there have fewer than 16 humans, but more likely the minimum number of humans was from 5,000 to 100,000.  This suggest that there never could have been just an Adam and Eve.

The Evidence From Genesis

Even the Book of Genesis seems to call into question the idea that there were just two humans.  If there were just two humans, then were Adam and Eve not only the parents of Cain but also of his wife?  If so, that would imply an incestuous relationship.  Really?

How the Proposed Theory Helps the Argument

Many have taken the scientific arguments presented above to mean that Adam and Eve could not have been real people.  But for many evangelical Christians, making Adam and Eve allegorical seriously undercuts the Christian message.  If the price of Darwin and other modern science is an allegorical Garden of Eden, many of these Christians say they'll take the real Garden of Eden and reject Darwin. 

My proposed theory presents a solution to this problem.  Assume, for a moment, that both Darwin and Ayala are correct.  That would mean that humans did descend from precursor species, and it would also mean that when humans first appeared on Earth, there were likely at least 5,000 of them, possibly as many as 100,000.  Even in this circumstance, I would argue, there could easily have been a Garden of Eden scenario.  Let me show how. 

The Garden of Eden story includes the following core elements: a) two creatures called humans, with mental capabilities never before seen in any living creature; b) sufficient mental capacity to understand the difference between right and wrong; c) the capacity make a conscious decision; d) the ability to make a bad choice even when the person knows that it is the wrong choice; and e) a God who is willing to respond to the decision they made.  Let's look at each of these.

First, Adam and Eve could easily have been two people selected by God for a test.  They were amongst the original group of humans, so their actions could have been representative of all humans at that time.  Darwin's theory posits that creatures would slowly evolve the capability for independent thought at judgment.  Adam and Eve, therefore, could have been amongst the first two with the capability.  Presumably, though, all or nearly all of the humans in this original cohort had evolved similar mental faculties: all would have gotten to the point that they understand the difference between right and wrong, yet could make a bad decision. Thus, Adam and Eve's behavior would simply have served as a convenient proxy for the entire cohort of humans.

Second, Darwin suggests that humans evolved higher mental faculties.  Eventually, creatures would emerge with sufficient capability to understand the difference between right and wrong, as well as the capacity to make decisions.

Third, according to the theory, creatures could eventually emerge who could think and act sufficiently independently that they would dis-regard what someone else wanted.  That sounds exactly like what Adam and Eve did.

Finally, God responded to what Adam and Eve did.  What we often forget is that God could have simply ignored Adam and Eve, then redirected His attention elsewhere in the universe.  After all, given the size of the Universe, God could easily have said, I don't have time for these people!  But, of course, Christians believe He made a different decision, one to be actively involved in the world.

Now I know I can't prove that this was the scenario.  The important thing, however, is that Darwin's theory creates a very practical way for this to have been the actual scenario.  Further, this scenario very neatly fits the actual description of Genesis 2 and 3.  Thus, Darwin creates a way to have a literal Garden of Eden.  In other words, Darwin provides a means to reinforce a second fundamental doctrine of Christianity, the concept of a real Garden of Eden where real humans willingly and knowingly dis-obey.

 

 

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A brief Introduction to a new book that explores both the positive and negative aspects of pride, the first of the Seven Deadly Sins.

Those of you who regularly follow my blog, or have read The Unexpected Perspective, are familiar with my idea that what Christians call sin is the negative by-product of human evolution.  Think of each human behavior as a coin with a "head" and a "tail".  The "head" is the positive aspect of the behavior that has helped us succeed, but the "tail" is the negative side of the behavior.  A perfect example, of course, is lying and deception: it's clear that the ability to lie and deceive is evolutionarily beneficial, but we all know the bad side of lying.  Researchers have shown that primates such as monkeys deceive and steal because it helps them survive.  Unlike us, however, monkeys don't understand the negative, sinful side of deception and theft.

Now a new book reinforces the idea as it applies to pride, the first of the famous Seven Deadly Sins.  Jessica Tracy, a professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia in Canada, has written Take Pride: Why the Deadliest Sin Holds the Secret to Human Success.  It's a very good book, but in case you'd prefer a video synopsis, check out Tracy's Google talk at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r5b46wVZrkQ.

Tracy says her book has three broad messages: 1) pride is an integral part of human nature, found in all societies and cultures; 2) it is evolutionarily beneficial, meaning that it helped us succeed as a species; and 3) there are two types of pride, one positive and one negative.

Tracy has done research in places like Burkina Faso, a small, very poor country in Africa, demonstrating that pride is found in a broad range of cultures, not just in Western ones.  She also cites an interesting study that I wrote about in my book.  Researchers found that para-Olympian athletes who were blind from birth still physically manifested pride in the very same way that everyone else does, by pumping up their chests and swaggering when they were victorious in competition.  The blind athletes could never have observed the behavior, but they acted in the very same way, meaning that it must somehow be innate to humans.

Everyone is familiar with the downside, sinful aspect of pride.  Tracy refers to this as "hubristic" pride.  Around the world, in every culture to which I've been exposed, boastful behavior is frowned upon.  No matter where you live, people tend to dislike braggarts.  Nevertheless, hubristic pride can be a successful strategy, according to Tracy, because the braggart can instill fear in, and achieve dominance over, others. 

So what, then, could be the positive side of pride?  Tracy says that "pride is the reason we bother to learn, discover, and achieve."  Moreover, she argues that "pride is the reason we so urgently need to believe we are good."  She carefully develops the argument that pride emerged as an aspect of our evolution as humans.  She refers to the positive version of pride as "authentic pride."    Tracy notes that if you give people a choice, they will seek knowledge from an "authentically" proud person.     

This is very consistent with the concept of antagonistic pleiotropy.  Readers of The Unexpected Perspective will recognize this as the biological phenomenon that genes not only tend to perform multiple functions, but they can simultaneously have both positive and negative features.  I cite the example of Sickle Cell Anemia, a terrible disease that afflicts mainly blacks.  The negative side of the disease is that it presents both a number of terrible symptoms, but also dramatically shortens the lives of those who suffer from it.  The positive side of the disease is that those who have it, or who are "carriers" of the gene for it, tend to have greater resistance to malaria.  While that probably doesn't make much difference in Europe and America, it is a real benefit in sub-Saharan Africa. 

I think of Sickle Cell Anemia specifically, and antagonistic pleiotropy in general, as a metaphor for human behavior: each behavior has both a positive aspect and a negative aspect.  Just as Sickle Cell Anemia offers the "positive" benefit of greater resistance to malaria, it simultaneously has the "negative" aspect of the disease symptoms.  Tracy makes the very same type of argument about the specific behavior of pride, noting that there is a "positive" aspect of pride that corresponds to the "negative" aspect we already know.

In upcoming posts, I'll explore this concept as it applies to other forms of behavior.

 

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Carl Treleaven is an entrepreneur, author, strong supporter of various non-profits, and committed Christian. He is CEO of Westlake Ventures, Inc., a company with diversified investments in printing and software.

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