Thursday, October 27, 2016

Mysteries of the Human Genome

Many who read this blog regularly will know of my interest in human genetics and the evolutionary process by which God guided the creation of humans and imprinted the imago dei upon us. I have frequently written about various creation and evolutionary theories and I recognize that this is a controversial topic in some Christian circles and in discussions with humanistic evolutionary theorists. Some of the greatest evidence that God used evolution to create all life can be found in contemporary DNA studies. We now have the capability to analyze our entire human genome at detailed levels and compare it to ancient humanoid DNA and the genome of other animal species. This has led to remarkable findings as shown in the following quote.

Less than a decade ago, scientists discovered that human ancestors mixed with Neandertals. People outside of Africa still carry a small amount of Neandertal DNA, some of which may cause health problems (SN: 3/5/16, p. 18). Bohlender and colleagues calculate that Europeans and Chinese people carry a similar amount of Neandertal ancestry: about 2.8 percent. Europeans have no hint of Denisovan ancestry, and people in China have a tiny amount — 0.1 percent, according to Bohlender’s calculations. But 2.74 percent of the DNA in people in Papua New Guinea comes from Neandertals. And Bohlender estimates the amount of Denisovan DNA in Melanesians is about 1.11 percent, not the 3 to 6 percent estimated by other researchers.
While investigating the Denisovan discrepancy, Bohlender and colleagues came to the conclusion that a third group of hominids may have bred with the ancestors of Melanesians. “Human history is a lot more complicated than we thought it was,” Bohlender said.  (from Science News October 21, 2016)
My own theological paper regarding Denisovan DNA carried by some humans was written in 2010 and 2011 (as partial fulfillment of an MA in Theological Studies at Regent College) just a few months after ancient Denisovan DNA had been analyzed. The paper allowed me to wrestle with theological questions about the nature of the image of God and what makes us human. Such discussion, questioning, and research leads me to understand that my faith in the scientific process and my faith in Jesus, the Son of God, are both well-founded. Both the Bible and the biological world are ways in which God reveals himself to humans. Our theological understandings of both the natural world and the Bible are what must adapt so that we might have a greater perception of God's message for his people.

I encourage us to read widely and in a scholarly fashion. We need not fear what science discovers for it is God who gives us our minds and allows us to discover the insights of our universe. Let us read with the Bible in one hand and scientific writings in the other.


Wednesday, October 26, 2016


There is evidence to suggest that we are living in a world that is craving more, fearing much, and feeling greater and greater helplessness. The news blogs and publications; the political polls and debates; and our entertainment and social commentaries would indicate anxious tendencies. Blaise Pascal was a mathematician, physicist, and philosopher of the 17th century. Even in his era, the seeds of dissatisfaction had already been sown.

“What else does this craving, and this helplessness, proclaim but that there was once in man a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace? This he tries in vain to fill with everything around him, seeking in things that are not there the help he cannot find in those that are, though none can help, since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God himself.”
- Blaise Pascal, Pensées VII(425)

Where does one find true happiness? How do we return to sanity and health? Is the answer found in abandoning God or in including God in the solution? Each reader must seek an answer but they need not do it alone. We are all fellow-travelers who need one another. Our mental health and well-being depend upon this.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

A Robotic Spacecraft Dies

This week was supposed to be a week of good news for the Schiaparelli lander. It was expected that by this time, the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) would be relaying information from Schiaparelli to Earth and science experiments would be about to begin on the surface of Mars. The European Space Agency (ESA) did have success in inserting the TGO into orbit around Mars but Schiaparelli did not fare so well. Evidence points to a crash landing on Mars. ESA lost contact with the Schiaparelli craft shortly after its entry into the Martian atmosphere on October 19. ESA believes that two of three phases of the landing succeeded but that something went wrong with the third and final stage of the complex landing procedure.

Phase one of the landing was a controlled air-braking procedure in which a heat-shield allowed Schiaparelli to use the atmosphere to slow the craft and achieve a height of 10 km above the surface of the planet. Next, a 12-meter diameter parachute slowed the craft further, taking Schiaparelli to 1 km above Mars. The final phase of landing was to be a controlled burn of 9 hydrazine rockets which would fire for approximately 30 seconds and bring the craft to 2 meters above the surface, then shut-off and allow Schiaparelli to drop the last 2 meters to the surface with a relatively gentle impact.

What seems clear from the evidence gathered so far is that the hydrazine rockets fired early and did not fire long enough to allow Schiaparelli to slow to zero velocity at 2 meters above the surface. Instead, it is believed that the space-craft fell more than 2 km and landed with a velocity greater than 300 km/hr, crushing the delicate craft and perhaps causing it to explode upon impact. Images of the landing site, taken by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (a NASA orbiter), show both the parachute and Schiaparelli on the surface with a larger than anticipated impact site for the spacecraft.

Meanwhile, the TGO is in its expected orbit around Mars and will go through a series of maneuvers in early 2017 to bring it into a low Mars orbit where it will begin its science missions. TGO will analyse the atmosphere of the planet looking for methane that may have been generated by life on the planet in some stage of its history. Methane could be an indicator of methane-producing bacteria that may have once thrived in water on the Martian surface thousands of years ago.

Despite the set-back of a crash landing, ESA will continue to work towards putting a rover on Mars in the year 2020. We look forward to much more Martian exploration in the years to come.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Warriors of Ephraim or Living Water

In Genesis, we read that Ephraim was the son of Joseph who was the son of Jacob. The descendants of Ephraim were considered one of the tribes of Israel and came to be associated with the northern tribes such that the tribe name, Ephraim, often stood in for the whole of the northern tribes after the Kingdom of Israel was divided into the Northern Kingdom of Israel and the Southern Kingdom of Judah (which included the tribes of Benjamin and Judah). In the time of Jesus, the northern kingdom was known as Samaria and those who lived there were known as Samaritans. The account of Jesus’ encounter with the woman at the well explains how the Jews (Southern Kingdom) insisted on worshiping in Jerusalem while the Samaritans (Northern Kingdom, Ephraim, Ten Northern Tribes) had set up an alternative system of worship at Mount Gerizim (John 4:19).

The two people groups had grown apart and developed separate doctrines of life and worship which persists to this day in the country of Israel and beyond. They are like two sister denominations whose differences are exaggerated despite their common history.

Even before the separation of the two kingdoms, Ephraim was known as a rebellious tribe that had a tendency to do things by their own strength rather than waiting upon the power of God. In Psalm 78:9-12, we read of one such incidence. There we read of the “Warriors of Ephraim” who, “though armed with bows, turned their backs and fled on the day of battle. . . . did not keep God’s covenant . . . [and] forgot . . . the great wonders he had shown them.”

The incident to which this Psalm is referring is lost in antiquity. Some suggest it refers to an incident in 1 Chronicles 7:21 and 22; but this is far from generally accepted. Some experts in Jewish history believe that it has a much earlier setting in Egypt at a time when the sons of Ephraim raised up a group of warriors to seek to free the people of Israel from their captivity (before the time of Moses’ exodus). There is evidence that some “Warriors of Ephraim” led a revolt and convinced some of the Israelites to follow them out into the desert. They successfully overcame their captors in Egypt but soon ran out of food in the desert and turned to the Philistines, seeking to purchase food. When the Philistines refused to sell them food, the Warriors of Ephraim stole cattle and became enemies of the Philistines in Gath. In this understanding of history, it is this battle with the people of Gath that is recounted in Psalm 78. This was when the Warriors of Ephraim turned their backs to the battle and escaped back to Egypt.

What do we learn from all of this? One message connected to the words of Psalm 78 is a message that is recounted throughout the Bible: trust in God’s power not your own. It is clear that the Warriors of Ephraim trusted in their own efforts over those of God. They did not wait upon God’s salvation and tried to manufacture their own victory over their enemies.

We are often tempted to do this. We cannot clearly see how God will redeem a situation and so, like the Warriors of Ephraim (or see also Saul in 1 Samuel 13:1-14), we seek to work hard and find a solution for the predicament in which we find ourselves. Yet, God’s ways are higher than our ways and his thoughts are greater than our thoughts (Isaiah 55:8, 9). He will provide the way of escape and victory. He reminds us that we are to come to him when we are thirsty and he will freely supply us with satisfying drinks (Isaiah 55:1-5 and John 7:37, 38). All who are thirsty, come and drink from the well of living water.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Animal Intelligence

I am fascinated by the intelligence of animals. On the farm where I grew up, we often had Border Collie dogs who were intelligent working dogs. They were exceptional herders and one dog was capable of finding the milk cows in the field and herding them into the barnyard on his own. Our daughter and son-in-law have an intelligent Border Collie family pet who knows the names of several of his toys and will go and find the “Star” or “Chain” or another toy when asked. Border Collies are thought to be one of the most intelligent dog breeds; yet, compared to other animal species, dogs may not even be the most intelligent animals on the planet.

Previously, I have written about the intelligence of crows. One of the more interesting studies reported that crows had the ability to recognize “bad guys” and communicate this information to other crows. New Caledonian crows have been shown to have the ability to make tools to aid them in foraging for food (see this article as well).

Dolphins, another intelligent species, appear to have methods of communicating with each other that humans cannot yet understand. They have been shown to create tools such as bubbles blown from their own bodies for hunting and play. They will also use naturally occurring sponges as tools for digging for buried fish.

Some apes have been shown to have complex thinking that allows them to guess where another ape will look for hidden food. They have the ability to deceive other apes for their own benefit.

Of course, the most intelligent of animal species is still very limited in how far this intelligence can develop. Even intelligent dogs may be more intelligent than very small children, but the toddlers eventually surpass the intelligence of even the smartest of dogs. Yet, it is fascinating to see that humans are not the only species on the planet with some measure of communicative and problem-solving intelligence. 

For a summary of some of the research on animal intelligence, you might want to read an article that appeared in the March, 2008 issue of National Geographic.

Collection of links used in this article:




Saturday, October 8, 2016


(Click on this thumbnail picture for a larger image.)

This week in solar system navigation, the Schiaparelli Lander was given the necessary software to allow it to land on Mars. Descent and soft touchdown on Mars will be guided by the commands that were uploaded on October 7thThe fact that such commands can be transmitted and incorporated into an on-board computer, more than 150 million km (9 light minutes) from Earth is a feat in itself. (Man, I would not want to pay those data roaming fees!) At the time, Schiaparelli and its parent vehicle, the Trace Gas Orbiter, were conjoined and enroute to the Red Planet. Together, these two spacecraft are part of the European Space Agency’s (ESA) ExoMars mission. Schiaparelli is scheduled to land on Mars on October 19 at 8:40 am MDT, while the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) will insert itself into orbit around Mars and relay information from the lander. The TGO will also have several science instruments on board with which it will analyze the thin atmosphere of the planet and will play a role in relaying data from other landing missions including a 2020 ESA Rover.

ESA is inviting media outlets to follow the progress of this mission including separation of the two vehicles on October 16th, Schiaparelli landing on the 19th, and summary on October 20th. The media announcement can be seen here. Watch for more exciting news in the days to come, but for now you can watch an animation of the landing on the same media webpage.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Happy, Blessed, Grace

Poems and songs are always a work-in-progress and never feel quite complete. But then, I guess that is especially appropriate for poems about grandchildren - they are definitely a work-in-progress. This one is for Gwyneth Anna Mitchell born 2016-09-14.

Happy, Blessed, Grace

She is Blessed to be a Blessing
True Happiness guides her ways
Her voice speaks truth and life and Grace
Gwyneth Anna is born today

Grace, Grace, God’s Grace
Charisma will follow her all of her days

Gift from the Lord to do His work
Redeemed by the One who gave all
Ambassador for worlds unseen
Child of God and child of the fall

Grace, Grace, God’s Grace
Charisma will follow her all of her days

Blessed to see redemption draw near
To see His Grace and truth and light
New birth that shows the purpose
Shining bright in darkness of night

Grace, Grace, God’s Grace
Charisma will follow her all of her days

A name that comes from the old world
From a land of mountains and sea
To a place of peaks and ocean
To a girl who is Blessed and free

Grace, Grace, God’s Grace
Charisma will follow her all of her days