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

Perspectives

California has imposed a new solar energy mandate that, in an unexpected way, even climate change deniers could love.

            Movies in the 1910's and '20s.         

            Freeways and sushi in the 60's.

            Yoga in the 70's.

            Bottled water in the 80's.

            Smoking bans in the 90's.      

            Even martinis.

            Keep yours eyes fixed on California.  Crazy new trends always seem to start there, then soon appear elsewhere in the USA.

            You've probably heard that before, and there definitely is some truth to it.  Unquestionably, lots of trends begin in the Golden State.

            It may be about to happen again, this time with home construction.  Now it isn't that you're going to start seeing some crazy new home designs.  Of course you might, but that's not the next big thing to come out of California.  Instead, it's the idea of having all new homes built to generate solar power.

            You read that correctly.  California's Energy Commission has adopted a new set of rules requiring all new low rise new residential construction to include solar. 

            Depending upon your political persuasion, you might view that as absolutely wonderful … or absolutely terrible!  I want to suggest that even if you're a die-hard conservative who hates more government regulation, this is one you should absolutely love!  Let me explain why.

            Unquestionably, solar power has been getting cheaper and cheaper.  You've probably heard of Moore's Law, which says that the number of transistors on a computer chip doubles every 18 months.  First posited by Gordon Moore in the mid-1960's, Moore's Law continues to work to this day, a half century later, and all of us benefit in one way or another from the increase in computer horsepower.  The Iphone or Android phone in your purse or pocket wouldn't exist without Moore's Law.

            Which brings me to Swanson's Law.  Never heard of it?  Well, Swanson's Law says that since the 1970's, every time the volume of solar panels put into production doubles, the price drops 20%.  The cost of solar power has dropped by two thirds just in the past decade thanks to Swanson's Law.

            With that, more and more people are retrofitting their homes with solar installations.  Nevertheless, even though the price of solar keeps going down, solar systems remain fairly expensive to install and take a fairly long time to pay for themselves.

            California's new law will likely change all of that.  The reason has to do with what makes solar installation so expensive.  It really isn't the cost of the solar panels.  Instead, it's what is referred to as the "soft costs".  Those are things like design, permitting, and installation.  Anyone who has ever done a home remodeling job knows how expensive it can be.  Experts at the US Department of Energy estimate that in typical retro-fit installations of solar panels in a home, two thirds of the total is soft costs.

            If the solar panels and control system are installed when the home is built, much of that cost goes away.  Oh yes, the solar panels probably will cost the same, but the soft costs will be dramatically lower.

            California's Energy Commission estimates that the cost of solar power in a home where the system is included in original construction will be only 2.5 cents/kilowatt hour.  Here's how they came up with that estimate:

  • The typical residential system will produce 3,015 watts and will generate 133,630 kilowatt hours over 30 years (i.e., 4,785 KWH/year with a 0.5% annual degradation due to system aging)
  • As part of new construction, the solar system will cost $ 3,381
  • The cost/KWH over the lifetime of the system will be 2.5 cents.

That 2.5 cents/KWH may not be meaningful until you consider what the average homeowner pays for electricity.  Idaho has the lowest average cost/KWH and it is 8.0 cents.  The second highest is New York at 18.1 cents.  Hawaii is the true outlier with an average KWH of 33.2 cents!

          So even if you live in the state with the lowest average cost of electricity – Idaho – you stand to save a lot of money if your solar system is an original part of your home.

            California is on the higher end, as you might expect, with an average KWH cost of 15.2 cents.  It's estimated that the extra cost of the solar system - $ 3,381 on the cost of the new home – will increase a typical 30 year mortgage payment by $ 17/month.  That's offset by an estimated $ 80/month in electricity expense, clearly a bargain.

            Which leads me back to why everyone – even diehard conservatives – ought to love what California is proposing.  No need to discuss why liberals and progressives should love this.  After all, built in solar means that much less greenhouse gas emitted into the atmosphere.

            So why should a diehard conservative love this, especially one who doesn't even believe in global warming?

            They should love it because it creates another good way to help people save money and make money.  The new homeowner clearly can save money, so let's turn to how this mandate could be a moneymaking proposition.

            Banks should like it because it increases the size of the average mortgage, but it provides a built in means to more than pay the extra cost.  Going back to the California example, the average homeowner will pay an extra $ 17/month on the mortgage but save $ 80/month in electricity.

            What about the electric utility that supplies power?  At first glance, one would expect electric power providers to hate this.  They'll be selling less power and making less money.  Well, they'll be selling less power, but I think they actually could end up making more money.  That's because the utilities could develop new sources of revenue and also reduce their own costs.

            They could reduce their costs by buying up excess power generated by these new home installations.  The utility could offer to pay the homeowner 2.5 cents/KWH for excess power generated.  The typical cost to generate power by an electric utility around the country is substantially higher than 2.5 cents/KWH.  Thus, every KWH purchased by the utility would reduce its own costs.  That's especially true in the case of peak load demand.

            The second way the utility could benefit would be to install and rent batteries to the homeowner.  The homeowner will probably generate excess power during the day but needs power in the evening and nighttime.  Thus, some type of battery storage will be required.  The utility could purchase such batteries, install and maintain them.  They could charge the homeowner monthly rent on it.   It could easily become a profit center for the utility.

            The third possibility is for the utility to pay the cost of home solar system and rent it to the homeowner.  That would get the system into the utility's installed asset base and permit to earn a rate of return on it.  This is much the same as cable TV equipment installed in the user's home that is rented to the user.  It's estimated that the new California requirement will create additional solar capacity at $ 1.12 cents/watt of generation.  That's pretty close to the cost of building large scale solar plants.  It might even be less in certain states where the cost of construction is lower.  After all, everything in California is expensive!   So instead of building X watts of new capacity, the utility might opt to pay for the cost of new systems for the homeowner.  The utility should be able to work out pricing that cover the cost of the new system for the homeowner as well as provide a good economic return to the utility.  This approach likely won't cover all growth in electric demand, but it could have a significant impact.

            The utility will still be installing and maintaining large power production plants, but it creates the possibility of the utility thinking of its residential customers collectively as another power plant.  In this case, it would be a power plant that produces power at very low costs.  Not only that, it would be a power source that requires little or no capital investment by the utility.

            The economics of solar system installation at time of home construction appear pretty compelling.  That's true not only in California but in the entire rest of the country.  During 2017 there were 614,000 new homes sold in the USA.  If every new home included a built in solar system, pretty much everyone would benefit.  Which brings us back to Swanson's Law.  All those additional solar system sales would make the price of solar continue to decrease

            Is California's move a panacea?  Of course not!  But it presages the future.  More importantly, as I've shown above, it's something that everyone could come to embrace.  Even if you think global warming is a hoax, you'll likely pay attention if it means you can save money or make money.

            So the people who first brought you movies, martinis, and freeways may now be bringing you a way both to reduce greenhouse gases and make money.

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It's really essential to living.  In this and the next several posts, let's explore what it means to have a world view, then consider how it might apply to views about Charles Darwin.

WORLD VIEWS

As I said in a recent post, many atheist scientists are astounded that many Christians don't accept what appears to be very strong evidence for what Charles Darwin was saying.  Yet the only ones who should be surprised are the scientists themselves. That's because they haven't taken into consideration a difference in "world views".  So just what is a "world view"?  It's something we all have.  It's really essential to living.  In this and the next several posts, let's explore what it means to have a world view, then consider how it might apply to views about Charles Darwin.

A world view is simply a theory of the world.  For each of us, it is a "mental model" of reality, and a framework of ideas and attitudes we have about the world.  While our world views are individual, they're not as refined as our finger prints, meaning we don't really have completely unique world views.  Actually, people can be broadly categorized.

What are the factors that affect our world views?  Included are:

  • Inherited characteristics
  • Background experiences
  • Life situations
  • Values
  • Attitudes.

So each of us has certain unique things about our world views, but we can be generally divided into certain groupings.  A world view helps us to organize our thinking.

While the blog is largely focused on science and religion, let me offer an example from the political sphere.  Thomas Sowell is a prolific author and distinguished professor of political science at Stanford University.  A number of years ago he wrote a very interesting book called A Conflict of Visions.  His goal was to try to understand why certain people always seem to line up on one side, and others on the other side, of widely varying political issues.  One would have thought that there would have been much more variety.  Sowell concluded that in politics there are two broad visions, or world views – what he calls the "unconstrained view" and the "constrained view".
Those who adhere to the "unconstrained view" tend to think that humans are essentially good.  Further, they believe that human nature is changeable.  In fact, with enough effort, supporters believe that humanity is perfectible.  Those who adhere to an "unconstrained view" tend to distrust decentralized institutions.  Conversely, there are those who have a "constrained vision".

These people tend to subscribe to the following ideas:

  • Human nature is unchanging
  • Man is self interested
  • There are no ideal solutions, merely tradeoffs
  • People can't put aside their self interest in the long run.

Take a moment and ask yourself, which view is closer to your own way of thinking?
Armed with an unconstrained view, one would more likely to have the following political views:

  • With coordinated effort, just about any social problem can be tackled
  • Centralized, governmental solutions are more likely to be successful than decentralized ones
  • Educated elites have a better understanding of how to problems than do others.

In contrast, those with a constrained view are more likely to have the following political views:

  • Social problems are better solved by letting individuals pursue their own individual interests
  • There are no ideal solutions, only tradeoffs
  • Centralized government is less effective than smaller, decentralized government.

Can you guess which view is more in line with the Democratic Party and which with the Republican Party; or which viewpoint would tend to foster bigger government rather than small governement?  Pretty easy!

Can world views change?  Yes, though they tend not to do so, except over long periods of time.

As I mentioned, Sowell found that people would tend to line up on one side or another.  Let me suggest three broadly different political policy questions: 1) climate change; 2) gun control; and 3) regulation of workplace safety.  These are three dramatically different political issues, yet one would expect liberal Democrats to line up on one side and conservative Republicans on the opposite.  The reason actually doesn't have anything to do with the merits of the specific issues, rather it has to do with Sowell's broad "visions".  A liberal Democrat is more likely to line up as follows:

  • In support of collective governmental intervention to address climate change
  • In support of the same to control guns, with the objective of reducing violence
  • In support of the same, the thought being that governmental regulation will help increase workplace safety.

In each case, the real belief is that collective, centralized action will help to solve the problem.  Conversely, conservative Republicans will likely line up on the opposite of all three issues.  The conservative will very likely have a "constrained" world view, meaning he or she doesn't think that big, collective efforts work.  Instead, the conservative thinks that decentralized action is more likely to be effective.  

This, I believe, helps explain why Republicans are more likely to be skeptical about climate change.  It isn't that they deny what scientists have determined, it's more that they reject the idea that the solution to the problem is more governmental regulation and intrusion into everyone's life.  In their minds, the case hasn't been made that collective action is going to solve the problem.  So Democrats shouldn't necessarily conclude that Republicans are just "stupid" or "intransigent" about climate science, it's that it points to something deeper.

So let's now go back and focus not on how world views may affect politics, rather let's think about how world views might affect the intersection between science and religion.  In our next post, we'll talk more about Christian versus atheist world views, particularly as they might relate to science.
 

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Researchers at Stanford Have Developed a New Type of Battery That Could Make a Big Impact in a Few Years

            Everywhere you look you see more and more energy being generated by solar and wind.  The cost of such renewables technology continues to plummet, and renewables now are giving traditional carbon-based energy sources such as coal a real run for the money. 

            But even if solar and wind became the lowest cost sources of energy, critics point out that the wind doesn't blow all the time, and unless you're in a polar region in the summer, the sun has a habit of setting each day with darkness not far behind.   So how do you generate power when the wind doesn't blow hard and the sun is shining on the other side of the Earth?

            The traditional answer is hydropower.  Rivers with dams can be relied upon to supply a steady flow of water even in the middle of the night.  At the same time, water is often diverted into a holding pond for use as a backup.  If extra power is needed, the water in the holding reservoir is released and extra electricity is generated.

            But there are only so many dams in the world, and only so many more good sites on which to site such dams.  Not only that, but virtually every new major dam project raises huge environmental concerns.

            While hydropower may be limited, another technology is emerging as the solution: batteries.  Two battery technologies – lithium ion and molten salt – have been under development for some time. 

This past week, a potential game-changer battery technology was announced in Nature Energy.  It was developed by materials scientists at Stanford University.  The Stanford researchers have built a prototype battery using manganese.  What makes this particularly interesting is that manganese is a low cost, widely available material. 

            All batteries have a cathode (positive charge) and an anode (negative charge).  In the case of the prototype manganese battery developed at Stanford, the cathode cycles between soluble manganese and solid manganese oxide.  The anode cycles between hydrogen gas and water.  The latter cycle is already well known and well understood.

            The manganese battery works, but it's still just a prototype.  What was built in the lab at Stanford is only 3 inches tall and capable of generating a whopping 20 milliwatt hours of electricity.  To put that in perspective, that's enough to power an LED light on the end of key ring.  So it isn't much of a battery – at least not yet – but certainly very promising when one considers than manganese sulfate is a cheap, abundant industrial salt that is already used to make dry cell batteries, fertilizers, paper and another of other products.  When you're talking about a new technology, it's always somewhat reassuring when one hears the words "cheap, abundant, and familiar".

            Yi Cui, a professor of materials science at Stanford, and the lead author of the new paper, estimates that, given the water-based battery's expected lifespan, it would cost a penny to store enough electricity to power a 100 watt lightbulb for twelve hours.

           So the manganese prototype battery can power a pen light.  How much does the technology have to improve for it to be considered as a storage device on the electric grid?  The US Department of Energy recommends grid storage batteries should be capable of: 1) discharge at least 20 kilowatts of power over an hour; 2) at least 5,000 recharges ; and 3) have a useful lifespan of 10 years or more.  The Stanford battery already has more than met the second criterion, and the researchers feel confident of the third. 

            Now the challenge is to build a battery that is both powerful and cost-effective.  The Department of Energy thinks the proposed 20 kilowatt/hour battery above should cost under $ 2,000, meaning less than $ 100/kilowatt hour.  While the key material – manganese sulfate – is inexpensive and widely available, the prototype battery uses platinum as a catalyst to spur the crucial manganese/manganese oxide reaction.  The cost of platinum would make a commercial scale manganese battery uneconomic.  The Stanford researchers think they've found a catalyst that will get the cost of the battery down below the Department of Energy target.

            So just how confident are the Stanford researchers?  Well, Yi Cui, the lead researcher, is seeking a patent.  He's also formed a company to license the technology from Stanford University and commercialize it.

            Assuming the Stanford researchers can commercialize the new battery, then besides hydropower storage, there will then be three different technologies available to store electricity on the grid.

            You're likely familiar with lithium ion battery storage.  Your computer and mobile phone likely use lithium ion batteries. You also know how expensive those batteries are.

            Besides those lithium ion batteries in your computer and mobile phone, you're starting to see them as storage devices for electricity in homes and businesses.  Not only that, Tesla has begun building large scale batteries for storage.  Perhaps the most famous one is the one Tesla built within 100 days in South Australia.  We'll likely see lots more of these installations – and Tesla will likely get the cost reduced significantly over time.

            There's another battery storage technology, however, that you've probably not heard about.  That's the technology to store solar energy in molten salt, sometimes referred to as concentrated solar power (CSP)

            The technology works as follows.  A series of mirrors are laid out in concentric circles, each mirror aiming sunlight at a single tower at the center of the innermost circle.  The focused energy then heats molten salt in the tower.  The molten salt acts as a giant battery.  When the energy is needed, it is converted into electricity by a turbine.  There are several commercial installations in California and Nevada with more planned. 

            Molten salt storage could be a great solution, but it only works if you have a lot of land and a lot of capital.  It's a commercial/industrial solution of a utility, not a homeowner or small business.

            So the manganese battery technology being developed at Stanford could conceivably work in both a small scale/home setting as well as a commercial/industrial setting.  In the latter case, it could become a viable alternative to lithium ion technology in the home and small business.  In the latter case, it could scale to address industrial-sized requirements.

            If all three of these technologies can scale, the key impediment to widespread adoption of renewable energy – the problem of storage – will disappear.  People in the coal industry have been worried about new solar and wind technology.  What they should really be worried about are the people developing scalable battery technologies that will make widespread solar and wind power a realistic possibility.

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One of the other things I'm very passionate about is the eradication of polio. By getting this book, you can make an important difference in the lives of as many as twenty children and their families.

You may not realize it, but by buying my book, The Unexpected Perspective, you're helping a worldwide coalition complete the eradication of a terrible disease – polio.  The monumental task of ridding the world of this terrible disease is nearly complete, and when the job is finished it will be only the second major disease ever eradicated, the first being smallpox in 1979.

            Only 30 years ago, polio was truly a worldwide scourge.  Every year, there were about 350,000 new cases of polio reported, and polio was endemic in 125 countries around the world.  The leadership of Rotary, an organization of which I'm proud to be a part, was the first to envision the possibility and potential of a polio-free world.  For the past 30 years, a coalition that includes Rotary, the World Health Organization, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and UNICEF has been fighting this terrible disease.  More recently, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has joined the effort.   To learn more about this partnership, go to http://polioeradication.org/who-we-are/partners/.  Today, polio remains endemic in only 3 countries – Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Nigeria - and fewer than 30 cases have been reported worldwide in 2016 through mid-October.  While the eradication task is nearly complete, nothing short of complete eradication will keep this dreaded disease from re-emerging on a worldwide scale.

            How does a purchase of my book help this effort?  For each book sold, I'm personally contributing $ 4.00 US to the Rotary Foundation.  Each dollar that I contribute is being generously matched on a 2:1 basis by the Gates Foundation, meaning that a single book purchase will turn into a $ 12.00 contribution.  That's more than the cost of the electronic version of the book, and nearly the cost of a softcover version.  It costs sixty cents to immunize a child against polio, so each book sale means that 20 children can be immunized against the ravages of polio.

            The Global Polio Eradication Initiative hopes to record the last case of polio sometime before the end of 2017.   The World Health Organization will certify the world to be polio free once three years time elapses without a single case of polio reported worldwide.

            Once polio has been eliminated, there will be two tremendous benefits.  First, no child or adult will ever suffer the ravages of polio again.  Second, eradication will produce a "polio dividend."  Right now, the world spends more than a billion US dollars every year on fighting and preventing polio.  Once the disease is eliminated, that money can be redirected towards other diseases.  This won't be a single year phenomenon, it will re-occur every year in the future.

            Polio has been a scourge for mankind for thousands of years.  Thanks to the work of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, as well as the governments of every country in the world, we truly are on the verge of polio eradication.

            If you would like to learn more about this incredible initiative, please visit http://www.polioeradication.org.

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Recent Scientific Research May Point the Way Towards Solving the Plastic Water Bottle Problem

            There's a good chance that sometime in the last 24 hours, you've had a drink from a plastic bottle.  If you live in the USA, there's about a 31% chance you recycled it (50% if you're in Europe). 

            Chances are, you've also heard the horror stories about where all those un-recycled bottles are ending up.  

            Absent a medical miracle, you and I will have departed this Earth within 100 years, and absent another scientific breakthrough, all of those plastic bottles will still be here, creating an even bigger environmental nightmare.  The problem has become so bad, it's reported that there are now islands of plastic garbage floating in the world's oceans.

            I'm not aware of any breakthroughs to extend human life, but a game-changing solution for plastic bottles may be just around the corner, thanks to an important discovery that was recently reported by Professor John McGeehan at the University of Portsmouth and Dr. Gregg Beckham at the US Department of Energy's National Renewal Energy Laboratory.  The researchers have found an enzyme that digests PET – polyethylene terephthalate – a plastic that was first developed, and patented, in the 1940's. 

            The average consumer will recognize it by the triangle with a number one in it.  Broadly speaking, there are seven different types of plastic.  PET represents about 8% of worldwide plastic.   It is commonly referred to as polyester, and is often found in textiles, some clothing, and some types of packaging.  Because PET has excellent water repelling properties, it's a great for packaging soft drinks and water. There's a good chance you've got it on the floor of your home or office, your clothes closet, and even in your refrigerator.

            While PET was first developed only about 70 years ago, and wasn't widely used in drinks packaging until the 1970's, evolution has already produced a bacterium that eats PET as food.  The bacterium – named Ideonella sakaiensis 201-F6 – was first discovered at a PET industrial recycling facility in Sakai, Japan.  The bacterium has developed the amazing ability to break down PET and use it to provide carbon for energy.  The reason the bacterium could do this, the researchers found, was because it contained a PET-digesting enzyme named PETase.  When you think about it, it's pretty amazing that the PETase enzyme was able to evolve so quickly to develop the capacity to convert PET plastic into energy! 

            The researchers didn't discover either the bacterium or the PETase enzyme.  That was done by other researchers at the Kyoto Institute of Technology and Keio University in Japan.

            Professors McGeehan  and Beckham built upon the research done in Japan by gaining an understanding of the structure of PETase.  They were able to determine the crystal structure of the enzyme using what's called the Long Wavelength Macromolecular Crystallography beamline at a place called Diamond Light Source.  It's the only device of its kind in the world.

            The researchers were able to get PETase to degrade commercial PET bottles.  They also found that PETase was able to degrade another plastic called PEF, a new type of plastic. The nice thing about PEF is that it is bio-based, as opposed to being a petroleum derivative, as are PET and most other plastics.  Thus it appears the PETase enzyme will be capable of degrading both traditional PET as well as bio-based PEF.

            But in the course of their research, they actually found a way to improve the capacity of PETase to gobble up PET.  The researchers acknowledged that their improvement was somewhat serendipitious, but who cares?  The end result is a more capable enzyme.

            What McGeehan and Beckham have come up with isn't really a solution, at least not yet.  That's because, as previously noted, PET represents only about 8% of all plastic.  Even if all PET can be recycled using the new process, that still leaves the other 92% of plastic still piling up around the world.

            Not only that, but there isn't yet a commercial way to put the PETase to work.  It's probably going to take some time for the researchers to come up with a way for the PETase enzyme to gobble up industrial quantities of PET bottles and other forms of PET waste.

            But think of the possibilities?  The researchers have demonstrated the capacity to improve the digesting capabilities of PETase.  They'll likely continue making improvements; and if fortune truly shines, they'll develop a Moore's Law-like improvement in the process, thus truly creating the potential to recycle huge amounts of PET, and PEF when the latter gains commercial scale.

            It could be a blessing.  But like many blessings, there are some potential downsides.  You really don't want to let plastic eating enzymes get into the wrong hands.  I can envision the next big prank: putting PETase on your friend's polyester pants or sweater.  The clothes you thought you were wearing suddenly start disappearing!  Or how about coating it on some other PET surface and watching the surface disappear?

            On the positive side, it creates the potential for an entirely new industry - large scale elimination of plastic waste.  Recycling is already a pretty big business, but commercialization of the PETase process could dramatically change the environment by providing a way to deal with the 70% of PET containers in the USA - and 50% in Europe - that don't presently get recycled.

            Once again, however, don't start celebrating quite yet.  That's because even if and when a commercially viable process is developed to get PETase to ingest huge amount of PET waste, there's still the problem of getting the un-recycled waste from the consumer to the PETase "factory".

            Someone will have to come up with a viable way to get that "other 70%" recycled, otherwise we'll still have mountains of waste.  While people profess a desire to recycle plastic waste, the actual results fall far short of an ideal solution.  So even if PETase can be commercialized, that doesn't mean the amount of plastic refuse will decrease much.  Needless to say, that requires something other than a scientific or technological breakthrough.

            Recycling has always depended upon getting people either to separate out recyclable items and/or to take them to a special location.  Some people do, and some people don't.  Even then, sometimes it's just hard to recycle. 

            So why not turn the entire model around?  Instead of asking people to take their waste to a recycling center, why not bring the recycling center to them?  The new discovery about PETase creates the potential for portable, personal PET recycling.  Why not create a consumer-sized box filled with PETase?  Just put your PET bottles in the unit and let the PETase feast on the waste? Make it easy!  Commercial and industrial sized units could also be built to handle larger quantities.  

            And then there's still the problem of the "islands of plastic" in the ocean.  Someone needs to develop a "floating factory".  That may sound crazy, but not that crazy.  After all, just as there are "factory ships" that do industrial scale fishing on the high seas, why not a ffloating recycling ship filled with PETase?  The PETase could feast upon the plastic waste, then turn the waste into energy that could be sold back on land.  If the economics work out, there's a potential new business.

            Crazy?  Maybe so.  The more important question though is, is it crazy enough?  What the scientists have come up with is certainly a promising first step, so now they need to take the next step and create both a solution to the "islands of plastic" nightmare, as well as a business of the future.  

 

 

        

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Charles Darwin wrote On the Origin of Species, his famous book on the theory of evolution by natural selection, in 1859, so we've been arguing about the theory now for more than 150 years.  Unless you're part of a relatively small group of people, you probably don't pay much attention to the debate.

THE SEVEN VIEWPOINTS

Charles Darwin wrote On the Origin of Species, his famous book on the theory of evolution by natural selection, in 1859, so we've been arguing about the theory now for more than 150 years.  Unless you're part of a relatively small group of people, you probably don't pay much attention to the debate.  From a distance, it looks as though there are two broad groups: one group that believes in evolution and doesn't believe in Christianity, and a group of Christians who don't believe in Darwin's theory.  

It's actually a lot more complicated.  In fact, there are actually seven different broad viewpoints.  Six of these have been identified by Gerald Rau, a former professor at Wheaton College in Illinois.  To Rau's list of six I will add a seventh.  I'm bringing this up in order to give you an idea of the diversity of opinion on the subject. You'll see why I'm doing this.

 

Viewpoint #1: Naturalism

The first school of though is what is called naturalism.  Naturalists strongly accept Darwin's theory.  In particular, they believe that the world, and the emergence of all life, can be explained without the need to invoke God.  It happened because of a completely natural process.  Usually, naturalists are either atheists or, at best, agnostics.

 

Viewpoint #2: Deism

Deists believe that God created the world, but after the creation, God pretty much took a holiday.  Deists tend to think of God as the great watchmaker – He created the world, but has chosen to sit back and watch the creation operate on its own, without influence or interference by God. 

 

Viewpoint #3: Planned Evolution

Supporters of planned evolution believe that both the Bible and Charles Darwin are right.  The world was created by God, but He used the evolutionary processes described by Darwin.

 

Viewpoint #4: Directed Evolution

Directed evolution is pretty much the same viewpoint as planned evolution, but there is an important difference.  Those who support planned evolution tend to believe that Adam and Eve weren't really people whereas those who support directed evolution tend to believe that Adam and Eve were real life people.

 

Viewpoint #5: Old Earth Creationism

Creationism is the idea that the description in the early part of Genesis is largely correct.  Those who support the "old earth" variety believe that God definitely created the world, but that his timetable was a little longer than one might infer from the Book of Genesis.  The big question concerns the length of a "day".  For an old earth creationist, the length of a "day" might be hundreds of millions of years.  As such, an old earth creationist can reconcile what the Bible is saying with the evidence of geology, that the world is millions, or billions of years old.

 

Viewpoint #6: Young Earth Creationism

For a young earth creationist, a "day is a day", meaning that God literally created the world in six days or so, and the world itself is probably not much more than six or seven thousand years old.  Young earth creationists reject both Darwin and modern geology.

 

Viewpoint #7: Intelligent Design

The seventh viewpoint is Intelligent Design (ID for short).  This is the concept that the world was designed by God.  It's an idea that traces back at least to St. Thomas Aquinas in the Middle Ages, but it's modern day variant has become much more famous. Briefly, ID is an attempt to apply a modern day scientific critique to Darwin's theory.  It is an attempt by serious, and well trained, scientists to raise objections to Darwin's theory.  We'll discuss it more in a later posting.  

Many Christians love ID but most scientists hate it.  While ID theorists raise a number of concerns about the robustness of Darwin's theory, there are two key objections: 1) ID isn't a competitor theory to Darwin, merely a series of disparate objections; and 2) most scientists think it is "junk science," so even if ID were a coherent alternative theory to Darwin, it would likely still be rejected by most scientists.

Some Christians probably have the impression that non-Christian scientists line up behind Charles Darwin and Christian scientists both support ID and reject Darwin.  The case is nowhere near that simple.  Probably the majority, if not the vast majority, of Christian scientists reject ID – because they believe it doesn't qualify as good science.  Conversely, not all supporters of ID are Christians: some support ID because they really believe Darwin didn't create a rigorous theory.

So what's the takeaway?  First, that there are so many different viewponts.  Second, that there isn't any consistent "Christian" viewpoint.  About the only truly consistent viewpoint is that of atheist scientists, who pretty nearly universally believe in a "naturalist" view of Darwin.  More importantly, these atheist scientists tend to be almost universally shocked that Christians haven't embraced the science the way they have.  But as others have pointed out, the only ones who really should be shocked are the atheist scientists themselves.  In our next few postings, I'll explain why nobody should be shocked about what Christians believe … and don't believe.
 

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A proposal to increase the chances we'll achieve required greenhouse gas emission reductions in time to avoid catastrophe

            Given that news is made worldwide 24 hours per day, seven days a week, it's little wonder that even the most well informed person misses an awful lot of stories that are important, sometimes profoundly.

            One such story was the agreement reached last week by the International Maritime Organization (IMO).  That's the agency within the United Nations responsible for safety and security in shipping, as well as the prevention of marine pollution by ships.  Historically, it's been focused on controlling discharges by ships into the oceans.  Like many around the world, now it's trying to tackle the problem of greenhouse gas emissions.

            When it comes to greenhouse gases, we all tend to think of the obvious sources such as power plants and automobiles.  But there are all kinds of other sources, and shipping is a comparatively small, yet still important, contributor.

            It's estimated that ships around the world on an annual basis emit the equivalent greenhouse emissions of 185 coal fired power plants.  The various participants/members in the IMO have agreed to eliminate 50% of those emissions by 2050.  It's a great idea, and an historic agreement, but don't uncork the champagne just yet.  That's because there are two key problems with this: 1) it's comparatively easy for participants to agree to reduce emissions, but there really isn't a very good enforcement mechanism, so it's fairly easy to have what are called "free riders"; and 2) even if everyone complies, there's concern that it won't happen quickly enough to achieve the "2 degrees Celsius" limit on temperature increase.

            In a certain sense, it's the very same problem that the Paris Climate Accord has.  How do you prevent countries from falling short, even reneging, on their pledges? Moreover, how do you get the needed reductions done in a sufficiently timely manner?  And failure to comply isn't necessarily a case of malfeasance or dishonesty.  After all, there's no doubt that members of the European Union REALLY want to eliminate greenhouse gases, but they're having a very difficult time doing so.

            I think there is a solution to the problem, and one applicable to both agreements.  Let me explain it, then show you why it's a superior approach. 

            The goal is to eliminate 50% of shipping related emissions by 2050, approximately the output of 93 coal fired power plants.  Gertrude Stein famously said, "a rose is a rose is a rose".  Similarly, while there are some variations, greenhouse gas is greenhouse gas.  If the shipping industry could find a way to eliminate the equivalent of  at least 93, and as many as 185, coal fired plants worth of greenhouse gas, they could claim "mission accomplished".  In fact, it would be double what they've promised.

            So my proposal is to reframe the problem.  We now know that renewables plants can be economically viable investments, so here's my idea: assign each party to the agreement a specific greenhouse gas reduction goal (with the sum of the individual commitments equal to the 185 coal plant total), but then leave it up to them to figure out the best way for them to accomplish the goal, either by focusing on reducing emissions in their own operations or by investing in another business; and encourage them to find the most economically profitable way to accomplish the goal.  They could then choose either to make the investment to reduce emissions in their own facilities, or they could commit the same amount of money to invest in building a renewables plant to replace an existing coal fired plant.

            The key idea here is to provide companies and countries a choice in how they eliminate greenhouse gases.  Besides that, it provides them an economic incentive to do so.  It also changes the calculus for making investment decisions.  It becomes one of the following: a) for a given amount of money, how can we create the greatest financial return while at the same time eliminating greenhouse gases; or b) to eliminate a given amount of carbon from the air, what's the least amount we're required to invest?  Pretty quickly everyone will focus investments on the following: a) Investments that provide the greatest financial return per ton of greenhouse gas removed; b) Investments that require the least amount of investment per ton of greenhouse gas removed.

            The real question for each party to ask itself is: can I/we more profitably/effectively eliminate our assigned target by investing in our own business, or should I/we instead commit the funds to eliminate our target number in another industry?

            The shipping industry – or any other industry trying to address this problem – could pool its resources and offer to build a bunch of renewables plants to replace current older plants.  Once the plants are built, the old plants would be decommissioned.   Alternatively, companies could work individually, making investments into existing entities that build and operate renewables plants. 

            Lots of people complain that old, inefficient coal fired power plants continue to operate in the USA, spewing tons of greenhouse gases.  Why aren't they replaced?  Because the owners don't want to abandon un-depreciated investments.  So here's an idea: the shipping industry could make a deal to provide the required capital to build new plants to replace the inefficient plants.  It could get as many as 185 renewables plants built and get up to 185 coal fired plants decommissioned.  Greenhouse gas reduction goal achieved.

            How could it pay for this?  Instead of spending money to reduce greenhouse gases in the shipping industry, the money could be invested in the renewables plants that would replace the coal fired plants.  Both industries could benefit. 

            The other important thing is for each group to have its members report on the investments they've made.  Within any given industry, each participant could be required to report on the financial performance of their greenhouse gas reduction investments.

            The reframing reduces or eliminates the "free rider" problem.  That's the problem of people agreeing to do something (e.g., do their part to eliminate greenhouse gases) but then doing nothing, figuring that they can get away with doing nothing.

            Here's why this is a better solution: a) if the investor can choose investment options from outside, it increases the chances that a better investment will be made; b) the investments can be made comparatively quickly.  In fact, the 185 plants could be eliminated within just a few years, far more quickly than if the investments are made to retrofit ships.  This will greatly increase the probability of achieving the "2 degree Celsius" goal.

            Realistically, this approach doesn't completely eliminate the "free rider" problem.  A given party may still decide not to follow through on its commitments.  After all, at the end of the day, human nature hasn't changed … and it isn't going to change.  But the "free rider" problem should be significantly reduced because the problem has been reframed more as an economic opportunity and less as a burden.  

            So isn't this just another form of trading carbon credits?  No, because in the case of carbon credits, the only way a company can meet its goals is by focusing its attention on reducing its own greenhouse gas emissions.  In this approach, a company can choose to reduce emissions in any business or industry.  Thus, if a particular company needs to eliminate X tons of emissions per year, it can choose to do it either in its own operation or any other operation.  It could conclude it's more economical or efficient to invest in reducing emissions elsewhere.  Thus, the shipping company might decide it's better to invest in a renewables plant that will eliminate a coal fired electricity plant rather than cutting emissions in its own business.

            Some may criticize this approach because it may not result in any reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by shippers.  Maybe not, but if properly implemented, it will result in overall emissions reduction.  Remember, greenhouse gas is greenhouse gas!  If the shipping industry does nothing to reduce ship emissions, but it takes steps to eliminate 185 coal fired power plants worldwide, consider it "mission accomplished".   But it probably won't happen quite that way.  That's because some parties will conclude that they can invest a certain amount of money to reduce emissions from their operations, and the investment will produce a greater economic return to them than making equivalent investments in other industries to reduce emissions.  But that's business!

            No doubt, everyone should commend the International Maritime Organization for what it is setting out to do.   The various parties may succeed by focusing on sources of carbon emissions just within the industry.  However, I strongly believe the probability of success will increase significantly if the shipping industry – or any industry – adopts the approach I've laid out here.  That's because, quite simply, greenhouse gases are more likely to be eliminated if everyone focuses on greenhouse gas elimination as a profit making opportunity, not an economic burden.

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In my last blog post I described my inspiration for writing the book, beginning with my observation that the 150 year failure of Christians to come up with a generally agreed upon understanding of how Darwin and other modern scientific ideas square with the Bible has led to many problems.  Many Christians, particularly the young, have left the church because of this.  Further, Christians are increasingly viewed as anti-science and out of touch.  Worst of all, Christians are also increasingly perceived as stupid.  I believe Christians need to do something about this.  I'm not at all suggesting we change our views in order to win a popularity contest, but I think we need to come up with better answers than we have, otherwise another 100 years could quickly pass and our Christian descendants would face even more scorn and less respect.

            Pretty much everyone has their heels dug in on the issue, locked into their respective views.  Likely, the only way to get some type of change on this is for someone to propose a new way of thinking.  Something like that happened about 500 years ago – it was called the Reformation – and it turned into far more than just a battle of ideas.  I think there's a solution to this that falls far short of what Martin Luther, John Calvin, and the other great Reformers had to do, and shouldn't create the bloody consequences of the 16th century.  In short, my idea is to adopt some "entrepreneurial thinking."

            When I say "entrepreneurial thinking", I'm referring to the process that many entrepreneurs go through to create new business opportunities.  While I'm not thinking of this issue as a "business opportunity", I seriously think we could apply some of the concepts in order to come up with a good solution.

            The first thing to note is something already pretty well known: most great business ideas come from outsiders, meaning from people who aren't already insiders in a particular business or industry.  For example, the great personal computer revolution of the past 30 years was started by people like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs.  Gates and Jobs were both outsiders.  The benefit was that they weren't wedded to the views of the big companies in information technology at the time, companies such as IBM and Digital Equipment.  Ken Olson, the head of Digital Equipment at the time, famously asked the question, "why would anyone want to have a computer on his desk?"  Unless you live near Route 128 in Boston, or are more than 60 years old, you've likely never heard of  Ken Olson and his company, Digital Equipment, once a titan in the mini-computer industry.

            The same is true about music.  The recorded music industry has been completely upended in recent years by the Ipod, ITunes, and similar technology.    Similarly, while the idea for digital photography first emerged at photography titan Kodak, the leadership of the company was too invested in the status quo to see the need to rethink things.

            What has that to do with Charles Darwin, the Big Bang Theory, and Christianity?   Simply this: I think many prominent scientists and theologians are too "invested" in their respective current "views" about Darwin and Christianity.  They're too wedded to familiar assumptions, so any really new thinking on the subject will likely have to come from outside. 

            Why not from an accountant?  Sounds preposterous, but is it any more preposterous than a couple of college dropouts without much, if any, formal education in computer science upending the computer industry, or that Kodak could have been toppled as a photography titan?  While I'm a committed Christian, I'm neither a scientist nor a theologian, so I'm not "invested" in 150 years of thinking about Darwin.  Instead, I can come along and do what entrepreneurs tend to do well: ask unconventional questions.  Just as entrepreneurs can come in from outside an existing industry and develop new solutions to old problems by asking unconventional questions, so I believe that I, or someone like me, can come in and ask some unconventional questions about Darwin, the Big Bang, and Christianity. 

            I said I'm an accountant.  By profession I am a CPA, though I haven't practiced as a CPA for many years.  Instead, I'm an entrepreneur, as well as an inventor.  As the people who work with me regularly know, I love to ask unconventional questions.  Asking unconventional questions has been the basis for starting and building businesses, as well as inventing things.  It was also the starting point for my investigation into this whole question.  The end product, of course, was the book I've written.   

            While the book addresses a whole series of unconventional questions, it really begins with two.  It's been noted than non-Christian scientists are absolutely astounded that even given all of the evidence that what Darwin postulated is true, only about half of the general American public believes it.  But it's also been said that the only people who really should be surprised about that are the scientists themselves; and the reason is the argument that in the minds of those Darwin skeptics, even given all of the science, they've never been given a good reason they should want to believe Darwin.  Thus, the first unconventional question is, "what would have to happen for Christians to want to believe in Darwin and the Big Bang Theory?"    The second unconventional question follows from that.  It is, "might there be reasons Christians would want to believe in Darwin and the Big Bang Theory and, if so, what would be those reasons?"

            So far as I know, no one has been asking those questions.  In my mind, they're the starting point for taking an "entrepreneurial look" at this entire issue, the place to launch a rethink of the matter.  Ken Olson of Digital Equipment couldn't conceive that anyone would want a computer on his desk, much less in his shirt pocket or on his wrist, and the failure to at least pose the question limited his thinking … and cost his shareholders a very fine company.  Have the people involved with the "Darwin versus Christianity" debate been thinking too much like Ken Olson?  I'm afraid they have.

 

 

 

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An interesting new twist on what killed off the dinosaurs

            No doubt about it, the dinosaurs that roamed the Earth millions of years ago were big, powerful, and likely very fierce.  But like the stereotypical "jocks" in your high school, who at the time seemed equally big, powerful, and fierce, maybe those dinosaurs weren't very smart. 

            At least they weren't smart enough to realize that the food they were eating was slowly killing them. 

            It's what has been termed "the biotic revenge hypothesis".  In recent years we've pretty much all concluded that the dinosaurs were killed off by a giant meteor that struck the Earth 66 million years ago.  A recently published study by Michael Frederick of the University of Baltimore and Gordon Gallup of the State University of New York at Albany proposes that the dinosaurs began declining BEFORE the Chicxlub meteor impact.  It isn't that the meteor was unimportant, just that it can't explain everything that happened.  Let's take a look at the argument.

            Needless to say, be very happy that you weren't around when the meteor hit the Yucatan Peninsula.  Scientists who've studied the resultant crater estimate that the meteor itself was about 6 to 9 miles in diameter.  They've hypothesized that when it hit the Yucatan, it released energy equivalent to a billion times what was released in the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombs combined!

            We humans have had some experience with the result of massive volcanic explosions.  Anyone more than a few years old in May, 1980 probably recalls the eruption of Mt. St. Helens in Washington State.  Of far greater consequence, however, was the eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia in 1815.  The Tambora eruption was so big that it had huge climactic impacts for years thereafter. 

            But even Tambora was a trivial event compared to the Yucatan meteor explosion.  The dust cloud created by the Yucatan meteor likely lasted for ten years, doubtless causing widespread destruction, as well as extinctions of many plants and animals.

            While large animals died, a number of smaller creatures survived the disaster, likely because the latter were able to get by living off detritus.  I like to joke that this phenomenon will ensure that cockroaches - which apparently have been with us for 320 million years - will be the last creature standing when the world ends!

            No doubt, the meteor killed a lot of dinosaurs!  But did it cause them to go extinct?  The evidence suggests that dinosaurs actually went extinct over a seven million year period.  While the meteor explosion caused an awful lot of premature deaths, its effects probably didn't stretch out over seven million years.  That suggests there had to have been something else.

            One theory of the "something else" is what's called the Deccan Traps, located in what is now India.  Geologists believe that the traps began forming 66.25 million years ago, at the end of the Cretaceous Period.  The timing coincides perfectly with the demise of the dinosaurs.

            Those studying the Deccan Traps believe there were a series of large volcanic eruptions over a 30,000 year period.  Imagine, not one Tambora sized eruption but nearly continuous ones over 30,000 years!  The eruptions released a very large amount of sulphur dioxide, leading to an average temperature drop of two degrees Celsius.  You probably know that scientists today fear the effects of an increase of global temperatures of two degrees Celsius on Earth's climate.  The Deccan Traps may have caused a climatic disaster in reverse.

            But the Deccan Trap theory suffers the same problem as the meteor one: it can't really explain why it took about seven million years for the dinosaurs to disappear.  You know those stereotypically drawn out operatic death scenes in operas such as "Carmen" or "Don Giovanni"?  Trivial, if the meteor strike and Deccan Traps took seven million years to kill off the dinosaurs.

            Enter the new theory of Professors Frederick and Gallup.  Their thesis is that the dinosaurs started going extinct before either the meteor strike or the Deccan Traps.  The cause, they believe, was toxic plants eaten by dinosaurs that were herbivores.

            Evolution has caused some plants to develop shells as a defense against predators.  Likewise, others have developed toxins to discourage others from eating them.  Conversely, many animals have developed the ability to avoid toxic plants.  It's called "learned, or conditioned taste aversion".  Rats apparently are especially good at this.  They lack the ability to regurgitate bad things, so they have to be especially careful what they eat.  Rats have exquisitely learned how to avoid eating bad things.

            Not the dinosaurs.  Thus, the "dumb jock" hypothesis: the dinosaurs died because they were too dumb to realize what they were eating was killing them!  Professors Frederick and Gallup are more charitable to the hapless dinosaurs, calling their theory "the Biotic Revenge Hypothesis".

            That could explain why herbivorous dinosaurs went extinct, but what about the carnivores?  They weren't eating these toxic plants.  But they were eating the dinosaurs who were eating them.  Thus, if toxic plants were killing off the herbivorous dinosaurs, the food supply for the carnivores would have slowly disappeared … to be followed by the carnivorous dinosaurs themselves.

            The idea of plant toxins killing dinosaurs actually isn't new.  In fact, Tony Swain, a biologist working at the Royal Botanic Gardens, advanced the idea about forty years ago, before anyone had discovered the Yucatan meteor site.  But Swain's theory didn't gain much traction because the available evidence suggested that herbivorous dinosaurs were thriving right up to the time of the meteor impact.

            So what evidence do Professors Frederick and Gallup provide in their new paper?  They focused on crocodilians, including modern day crocodiles, alligators and caimans, each a descendant from precursors to dinosaurs.  They then constructed an experiment that showed caimans do not develop specific learned taste aversions. 

            The fact that the caimans didn't develop specific learned taste aversions, then in contrast to animals such as rats, they wouldn't avoid food that turned toxic.  So with respect to food, they're today's "dumb jocks", incapable of realizing something they're eating is killing them!

            But what about birds?  After all, there is evidence that birds are descendants of the dinosaurs.  If dinosaurs were killed off because they were indiscriminate eaters, why haven't robins gone the way of T-Rex?  The authors cite the work done in the 1970's showing that birds can form food aversions.  They do it, however, not by taste but by sight.  So if a bird has a bad experience with a particular type of food, they develop a visual association and avoid it in the future. 

            The experimenters provided some jays an opportunity to eat monarch butterflies for the first time.  The butterflies have a milkweed toxin that makes life miserable for any jay that eats it.  The jays survived the, to them, bad experience that results from eating monarch butterflies, but the jays developed a visual cue and avoided the misery in the future.

            So are Frederick and Gallup suggesting that the dinosaurs died off because of indiscriminate eating?  No, they haven't gone that far.  Instead, they see the "biotic revenge hypothesis" as merely one contributing factor.  So a lot of indiscriminate eating on the part of dinosaurs probably helped weaken them.  Inhaling an excess of sulphur dioxide from the Deccan Traps made it even worse.  All to be followed by the mother of meteor explosions. 

            Death and destruction on a scale never before seen … and all witnessed by those pesky cockroaches, who survived!  I guess size does matter, but in the case of dinosaurs and cockroaches, not the outcome you might have expected.

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Recent studies have shed new light on how our genetics have been influenced by the Neanderthals and Denisovans

            Don't like the way you look, or the way you feel?  Been blaming your parents and grandparents?   Well, maybe you've been blaming the wrong folks.

            Every day, more and more people discover their true genetic ancestry, thanks to ever lower cost DNA test from companies such as 23andme.  Oftentimes, there are unexpected surprises.  My wife, who was born in Italy - and whose entire family appears to have lived in Italy for generations – discovered that her father's ancestors were Vikings!

            All these genetic tests provide us new sources of blame for things we don't like about ourselves – someone other than our immediate family.  Besides checking the DNA of curious people like my wife and others, scientists are doing the same with for those long deceased.  It's been reported that the genomes of several Neanderthals and one Denisovan have been sequenced.  The evidence shows that these various groups interbred at various points in history.  The implications of that inter-breeding are now becoming apparent.    

            You've probably heard jokes about the Neanderthals – and Neanderthal behavior – for years and years.  Evidence now suggests that anyone of European ancestry has anywhere from 1% to 4% of their DNA from the Neanderthals – the result of all that interbreeding.

            Likewise, if you can trace your ancestry to Oceania – meaning one of the South Pacific Islands – or to various parts of Asia, there's a good chance you have DNA traceable to a group called the Denisovans.  For example, Aborginal Australians can trace about 3% to 5% of their DNA to the Denisovans.  The same is true for people from Melanesia and parts of China and Tibet.

            Conversely, if you're from Africa and have neither European nor Asian ancestry, you'll likely have neither Neanderthal nor Denisovan DNA.

            Neanderthals were a species very similar to Homo sapiens, our species.  Some make the argument that the Neanderthals were just close cousins to Homo sapiens.  Both species have a common ancestor who lived about 500,000 years ago.  While Homo sapiens differed somewhat from Neanderthals, we were sufficiently similar that the two species could mate and have children, thus explaining why so many of us have some Neanderthal DNA.

            Neanderthals apparently moved out of Africa first.  Then about 50,000 to 80,000 years ago, Homo sapiens also moved out of Africa.  Homo sapiens and Neanderthals apparently only began to interbreed after the two groups moved out of Africa, thus explaining why the typical African doesn't have Neanderthal DNA.

            We know a lot less about the Denisovans than about the Neanderthals.  That's largely due to the fact that only a few fragments of deceased Denisovans have ever been found – nothing more than a finger bone, a toe bone, and several teeth – from a cave in remote Siberia.

        When two populations, such as the Homo sapiens and the Neanderthals, begin to interbreed, it's called "adaptive introgression".  So what are these DNA studies revealing about adaptive introgression?  A number of interesting things.

              First, it may explain the real reason why you look as you do.  One study identified some twenty different physical traits in modern humans that are traceable to the Neanderthals.  If you happen to have rosy cheeks, little or no protruding chin, or a broad projecting nose, don't blame Aunt Martha or your father, thank one of your Neanderthal ancestors instead.

     But of potentially greater interest are several recent DNA studies suggesting that Neanderthals not only provided some of us with rosy cheeks, they also gave many of us allergies, as well as an increased risk for depression.  Another recent study looked at the health records of Americans and concluded that Neanderthal admixed DNA may affect the risk of depression; explain skin lesions resulting from sun exposure; explain hypercoagulation of blood; and even explain something about tobacco use.

            Having trouble quitting smoking?  I guess you can blame it on that nameless ne'er do well Neanderthal ancestor of yours!

            But the Neanderthals didn't just give some of us a genetic variation of the "lump of coal" for Christmas.  In fact, two other new studies identified three archaic genes from the Neanderthals that boost immune response, a benefit.

            Other studies show the same positive benefit resulting from interbreeding between Homo sapiens and Denisovans.  One positive benefit of that is evidence that the Denisovans provided certain groups in Tibet the ability to survive and thrive at high altitudes.  Anyone who has ever travelled to Pikes Peak in Colorado (elevation 14,110 feet above sea level) or the base camp in Nepal from which teams begin the ascent of Mt. Everest (elevation 18,500 feet above sea level) knows how hard it is for humans to breathe at such altitudes.  However, the Denisovans provided at least some modern day Tibetans the right genes for this.

            Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection posits that "bad genes" will eventually disappear.  If that's the case, then why would bad genes that lead to depression and allergies, for example, persist?  There are two likely answers.

            One reason "bad genes" might persist for such a long time is because they were likely beneficial in prehistoric times.  We obviously live in a very different world than did our Neanderthal, Denisovan, or Homo sapiens forebears.  The conditions that made those "bad genes" beneficial have disappeared.  The genes may be bad in a modern environment, but not bad enough that they would prevent the person with the bad genes from having offspring.  After all, you may have nasty allergies, and life may be a bitch in allergy season, but how many people with allergies do you know who died before they could pass on their genes?

            The other reason may be related to modern day lifestyles and environments.  Take the case of allergies.  There's some evidence that allergies are problematic for modern humans because of the conditions in which we live.  Another is that children are raised in overly sanitary environments, so they do not develop immunity from a range of minor bugs while they're young and their immune response somehow remains immature. 

          At the same time, while the Neanderthals provided us some bad things, another new study

suggests that evolution by natural selection did in fact work: large numbers of Neanderthal gene variants that would be deleterious to humans were purged.  But researchers made another interesting discovery: that "purging" wasn't a foregone conclusion.  Instead, the purging of many of these Neanderthal genes occurred only because the Homo sapiens population was so much larger than the Neanderthal population.  If, instead, the Homo sapiens and Neanderthal populations had been more evenly balanced, not only would more us have rosy cheeks, we'd also have more Neanderthal genes, including ones that are mildly deleterious to modern day humans.  According to Ivan Juric of the University of California Davis, "Selection is more efficient at removing deleterious variants in large populations."  The study further noted, "Weakly deleterious variants that could persist in Neanderthals could not persist in (early modern) humans.  We think that this simple explanation can account for the pattern of Neanderthal ancestry that we see today along the genome of modern humans."

            What that implies is a potentially very different outcome if the populations of Homo sapiens and Neanderthals had been more evenly balanced.  We likely would have a lot more Neanderthal DNA than we do.  Alternatively, we might have a lot less Homo sapiens DNA than we do.  Taking that a step further, maybe we might actually be mainly Neanderthal, not Homo sapiens?

            Of course, passing good and bad genes isn't a "one way street".  I've noted the evidence that Neanderthals have bequeathed upon many of us some not so nice DNA.  According to another recent study, Homo sapiens returned the favor by passing along to Neanderthals the bacterium that causes such truly pleasant things as stomach ulcers, tapeworms, and tuberculosis.  The Neaderthals apparently hadn't developed resistance to such bugs, so exposure was catastrophic, much as the introduction of various bugs by the Spanish explorers to the Americas in the late 15th and early16th centuries was catastrophic to native populations. 

            Our individual genomes carry surprises of both the good and the bad variety.  Not only that, they shed light on the rich journey of Homo sapiens and related species from the time of the emergence of Homo in Africa.  So be ready to be surprised even more.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

 

 

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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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