Category Archives: Nature & Space

How Cyclical Volcanic Activity Benefits Humanity

When we think about volcanoes, the images that typically come to mind are violent eruptions that devastate the surrounding landscapes and bring death or serious injury to anyone so unfortunate as to be in the vicinity. Figure 1, for example, shows the lava flows from the 1985 eruption of the Nevado del Ruiz volcano, which killed more than 23,000 people and destroyed the town of Armero, Colombia.

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Figure 1: Town of Armero, Colombia, wiped out by the 1985 eruption of Nevada del Ruiz

People are quick, however, to return to the regions near recent volcanic eruptions. The reason why is that the volcanic rocks and ash from eruptions contain stores of rich nutrients that yield bumper harvests of food crops.

This curse and blessing of volcanic eruptions raises an interesting question: wouldn’t it be great if volcanic eruptions were especially frequent when nobody lived near the volcanoes and especially infrequent when people were exploiting their rich soils for food? A recently published paper by five geologists shows that such a marvelous timing has indeed occurred, and it ranks as yet another fine-tuned feature of our planet that allows humans to enjoy sustained global high-technology civilization.

The paper published in Quaternary Science Reviews updates a hypothesis, based on evidence that volcanic activity in Iceland increased after the last glacial maximum, that deglaciation produces enhanced volcanic activity.1 The five geologists reanalyzed the four longest and most reliable tephra records.

Tephra is fragmented material ejected by a volcanic eruption regardless of fragment size, composition, or how the fragmented material got to its location. Where the tephra is hot enough, it will fuse together into pyroclastic rock or tuff (volcanic ash compacted to form solid rock). Figure 2 shows tephra layers from multiple eruptions of the Hekla volcano.

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Figure 2: Tephra Layers in South Central Iceland from the Hekla Volcano

The geological team investigated four tephra records that covered multiple glacial cycles. These four records were all linked with oxygen-18 measurements that accurately revealed both the recent historical records of sea level variations and variations in the global mean (average) temperature. Scientists obtained the four tephra records from different latitudes and different geotectonic settings.

All the tephra records exhibited the Milankovitch periodicities of precession (23,000 years), rotation axis tilt (41,000 years), and orbital eccentricity (approximately 100,000 years). I have written previously about Earth’s Milankovitch cycles here,2 here,3 and here,4 and how they in large part explain the repeated episodes of glaciations and deglaciations that characterize the ice age cycle of the past 2.588 million years.

All the tephra records show that periods of increased volcanic eruption frequencies coincide with the dramatic deglaciations that occur at the glacial-interglacial transitions. Evidently, the release of the load of ice and snow on the continental landmasses ignites volcanic eruptions.

The long duration tephra records in this study, however, add up to just four. Thus, the five geologists call for “more precise tephra time series (preservation and age optimized) from different regions (glaciated versus non-glaciated) and geological settings (island arcs, continental arcs, intraplate)”5 … “to decipher the impact of these factors on a global perspective of how climate may control volcanism.”6

Enhanced volcanic eruptions at the beginning of an interglacial period imply that much of Earth’s continental landmasses and its lakes, rivers, and oceans receive a delivery of nutrients that allows microbes, vegetation, and animals to flourish. This fertilization event coincides with another fertilization event that I wrote about in Improbable Planet. I stated there that at the beginning of an interglacial “fine loess (wind-blown dust) from dried-out parts of the floodplains of glacial braided rivers carried layers of crucial nutrients onto the lowland plains below, making them richly fertile.”7

As I have explained in another blog,8 the interglacial we are experiencing right now is unique. It is the longest lasting interglacial and the only one where there has been an extended duration (9,500 years) of extreme climate stability. The current warm period has followed the most severe glacial period in the entire ice age cycle.

The severity and rapidity of the deglaciation from that glacial period resulted—at the time of the beginning of our interglacial period—in the greatest delivery of fine loess and other nutrients from volcanic eruptions. These especially intense and simultaneous fertilization events, to a large degree, explain why humans today are able to grow so much food on Earth’s plains and valleys and why we are able to harvest so much shellfish and other fish from Earth’s oceans, seas, lakes, and rivers.

These especially intense and simultaneous fertilization events give us more reasons to thank God for his supernatural blessings poured out on humanity. They also demonstrate that God planned in advance that billions of us would experience sufficiently high-technology civilization that makes possible the rapid spread of his message of redemption from human sin.

Original article: How Cyclical Volcanic Activity Benefits Humanity

Long Noncoding RNAs Extend the Case for Creation

I don’t like to think of myself as technology-challenged, but I am beginning to wonder if I just might be. As a case in point, I have no clue about all the things my iPhone can do. It isn’t uncommon for someone (usually much younger than me) to point out features of my iPhone that I didn’t even know existed. (And, of course, there is the TV remote—but that will have to serve as material for another lead.)

The human genome is a lot like my iPhone. The more the scientific community learns about it, the more complex it becomes and the more functionality it displays—functionality about which no one in the scientific community had a clue. It has become commonplace for scientists to discover that features of the human genome—long thought to be useless vestiges of an evolutionary history—actually serve a critical role in the structure and function of the genome.

Long noncoding RNAs (lncRNAs) illustrate this point nicely. This broad category of RNA molecules consists of transcripts (where genetic information is transferred from DNA to messenger RNA) that are over 200 nucleotides in length but are not translated into proteins.

Though numbers vary from source to source, estimates indicate that somewhere between 60 to 90 percent of the human genome is transcribed. Yet only 2 percent of the genome consists of transcripts that are directly used to produce proteins. Of the transcripts that are untranslated, researchers estimate that somewhere between 60,000 to 120,000 of the transcripts are noncoding RNAs. Researchers categorize these transcripts as microRNAs(miRNAs), piwi-interacting RNAs (piwiRNAs), small interfering RNAs (siRNAs) and lncRNAs. The first three types of RNAs are relatively small in size and play a role in regulating gene expression.

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Figure 1: Transcription and Translation

Initially, researchers thought for the most part that lncRNAs were transcriptional noise—junk. But this view has changed in recent years. Evidence continues to accrue demonstrating that lncRNAs play a wide range of roles in the cell.1 And as evidence for the utility of lncRNAs mounts, the case for the design of the human genome expands.

The Functional Utility of Long Noncoding RNAs

As it turns out, lncRNAs are extremely versatile molecules that can interact with: (1) other RNA molecules, (2) DNA, (3) proteins, and (4) cell membranes. This versatility opens up the possibility that these molecules play a diverse role in cellular metabolism.

Recently, Harry Krause, a molecular geneticist from the University of Toronto, published two review articles summarizing the latest insights into lncRNA function. These insights, including the four to follow, demonstrate the functional pervasiveness of the transcripts.

lncRNAs regulate gene expression. lncRNAs influence gene expression by a variety of mechanisms. One is through interactions with other transcripts forming RNA-RNA duplexes that typically interfere with translation of protein-coding messenger RNAs.

Researchers have recently learned that lncRNAs can also influence gene expression by interacting with DNA. These interactions result in either: (1) a triple helix, made up of two DNA strands intertwined with one RNA strand, or (2) a double helix with the lncRNA intertwined with one of the DNA strands, leaving the other exposed as a single strand. When these duplexes form, the lncRNA forms a hairpin loop that can either indiscriminately or selectively attract transcription factors.

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Figure 2: A Hairpin Loop

Though researchers are still learning about the role lncRNAs play in gene regulation, these varied interactions with DNA and proteins suggest that lncRNAs may influence gene expression through a variety of mechanisms.

lncRNAs form microbodies within the nucleus and cytoplasm. A second function recognizes that lncRNAs interact with proteins to form hydrogel-like structures in the nucleus and cytoplasm. These structures are dense and heavily cross-linked subcellular structures that serve as functionally specific regions without a surrounding membrane. (In a sense, the microbodies could be viewed as somewhat analogous to ribosomes, the protein-RNA complexes that synthesize proteins.) In the nucleus, microbodies play a role in transcriptional processing, storage, and stress response. In the cytoplasm, microbodies play a role in storage, processing, and trafficking.

lncRNAs interact with cell membranes. A third role stems from laboratory studies where lncRNAs have been shown to interact with model cell membranes. Such interactions suggest that lncRNAs may play a role in mediating biochemical processes that take place at cell membranes. Toward this end, researchers have recently observed certain lncRNA species interacting with phosphatidylinositol 3,4,5-triphosphate. This cell membrane component plays a central role in signal transduction inside cells.

lncRNAs are associated with exosomes. Finally, lncRNAs have been found inside membrane-bound vesicles that are secreted by cells (called exosomes). These vesicles mediate cell-cell communication.

In short, the eyes of the scientific community have been opened. And they now see the functional importance and functional diversity of lncRNAs. Given the trend line, it seems reasonable to think that the functional range of lncRNAs will only expand as researchers continue to study the human genome (and genomes of other organisms).

The growing recognition of the functional versatility of lncRNAs aligns with studies demonstrating that other regions of the genome—long thought to be nonfunctional—do, in fact, play key roles in gene expression and other facets of cellular metabolism. Most significantly, toward this end, the functional versatility of lncRNAs supports the conclusions of the ENCODE Project—conclusions that have been challenged by some people in the scientific community.

The ENCODE Project

A program carried out by a consortium of scientists with the goal of identifying the functional DNA sequence elements in the human genome, the ENCODE Project, reported phase II results in the fall of 2012. (Currently, ENCODE is in phase IV.) To the surprise of many, the ENCODE Project reported that around 80 percent of the human genome displays biochemical activity—hence, function—with the expectation that this percentage should increase as results from phases III and IV of the project are reported.

The ENCODE results have generated quite a bit of controversy. One of the most prominent complaints about the ENCODE conclusions relates to the way the consortium determined biochemical function. Critics argue that ENCODE scientists conflated biochemical activity with function. As a case in point, the critics argue that most of the transcripts produced by the human genome (which include lncRNAs) must be biochemical noise. This challenge flows out of predictions of the evolutionary paradigm. Yet, it is clear that the transcripts produced by the human genome are functional, as numerous studies on the functional significance of lncRNAs attest. In other words, the biochemical activity detected by ENCODE equates to biochemical function—at least with respect to transcription.

A New View of Genomes

These types of insights are radically changing scientists’ view of the human genome. Rather than a wasteland of junk DNA sequences stemming from the vestiges of an evolutionary history, genomes appear to be incredibly complex, sophisticated biochemical systems, with most of the genome serving useful and necessary functions.

We have come a long way from the early days of the human genome project. When completed in 2003, many scientists at that time estimated that around 95 percent of the human genome consists of junk DNA. That acknowledgment seemingly provided compelling evidence that humans must be the product of an evolutionary history.

Nearly 15 years later the evidence suggests that the more we learn about the structure and function of genomes, the more elegant and sophisticated they appear to be. It is quite possible that most of the human genome is functional.

For creationists and intelligent design proponents, this changing view of the human genome—similar to discovering exciting new features of an iPhone—provides reasons to think that it is the handiwork of our Creator. A skeptic might ask, Why would a Creator make genomes littered with so much junk? But if a vast proportion of genomes consists of functional sequences, this challenge no longer carries weight and it becomes more and more reasonable to interpret genomes from within a creation model/intelligent design framework.

Original article: Long Noncoding RNAs Extend the Case for Creation

Newly Mapped Area of the Human Brain: Evidence for Exceptionalism?

The biblical account of Adam and Eve makes clear that humanity did not evolve from other primates. God establishes human exceptionalism by creating us in his image and giving us dominion over all other life on Earth (Genesis 1:26–28). If the biblical claims are true, then we can expect humans to possess qualities that are exceptions to what would otherwise be predicted if we were evolutionary descendants. A recent discovery by neuroscientist George Paxinos of Neuroscience Research Australia (NeuRA) suggests an important, previously unknown feature of human exceptionalism.1

Paxinos’s research yields detailed brain maps (brain atlases) used by neurosurgeons and neuroscientists throughout the world. Now, using imaging and staining techniques previously unavailable to him, Paxinos discovered a 2-mm-long area near the base of the brain where it joins with the spinal cord. He named this area the endorestiform nucleus. It’s a smaller area within the previously mapped inferior cerebellar peduncle (ICP), which conveys sensory information about the positions of the limbs, joints, and body. Paxinos does not yet know the function of the endorestiform nucleus, but believes that due to its location it may be involved in controlling fine motor movements.

According to Paxinos, “The region is intriguing because it seems to be absent in the rhesus monkey and other animals that we have studied. There have to be some things that are unique about the human brain besides its larger size, and the Endorestiform Nucleus may be one of them.”2

If the endorestiform nucleus is unique to humans and further research proves that it controls fine motor movements, this development would support the biblical idea of human exceptionalism and be consistent with predictions of the RTB testable creation model. We can see this distinction in just one example, namely brain activity and music. The ability to imagine music and then to symbolize that music in elaborate notation is unique to humans. Producing the music often requires complex, precise, and sequenced movements of the fingers. Without extraordinarily fine motor control this would be impossible. The endorestiform nucleus may be one of the uniquely human brain functions that sets us apart from all other animals in our ability to produce music.

Creating beauty (including music) is a brilliantly visible power in God’s character, something we see endlessly in nature. The human capacity and ceaseless drive to produce and enjoy the beautiful is a manifestation of the image of God in us. If the biblical account of Adam and Eve is true, then the RTB testable creation model predicts that further studies into the features of human brains will show how we truly are exceptional.

Original article: Newly Mapped Area of the Human Brain: Evidence for Exceptionalism?

Franciscan University Presents: Faith of the Fatherless: The Psychology of Atheism

Long ago, even as a child, I saw a obvious correlation between angry children and their absent, abusive or alienated fathers (or mothers) and their embrace of atheism.

Even today, my opening inquiry to atheists I meet is “What is your relationship with your father?” Or, in some cases, “What is your relationship with your mother?”

Almost to a person (99%) they will reveal animosity either to or from one or both of their parents.

Atheism is an emotion.

Doctors, lawyers, scientists, teachers, police officers, technicians, bakers, entertainers, soldiers, film professionals—it doesn’t matter.

The answer is always the same.

Thus, I have long recognized most atheists are merely projecting the indifference they have for their father or mother to their Divine Parent.

In my experience, the correlation is so strong as to be 1:1.

A Key Reason Skeptics Reject the Resurrection by J. Warner Wallace

In this episode of the Cold-Case Christianity Broadcast, J. Warner Wallace examines the case for the Resurrection of Jesus using “abductive reasoning’ to determine the most reasonable explanation for the first century evidence described in the New Testament. Is the Resurrection.

Original article: www.ColdCaseChristianity.com

Reasons to Believe

Scripture

We believe the Bible (the 66 books of the Old and New Testaments) is the Word of God, written. As a “God-breathed” revelation, it is thus verbally inspired and completely without error (historically, scientifically, morally, and spiritually) in its original writings. While God the Holy Spirit supernaturally superintended the writing of the Bible, that writing nevertheless reflects the words and literary styles of its individual human authors. Scripture reveals the being, nature, and character of God, the nature of God’s creation, and especially His will for the salvation of human beings through Jesus Christ. The Bible is therefore our supreme and final authority in all matters that it addresses.

Creation

We believe that the physical universe, the realm of nature, is the visible creation of God. It declares God’s existence and gives a trustworthy revelation of God’s character and purpose. In Scripture, God declares that through His creation all humanity recognizes His existence, power, glory, and wisdom. An honest study of nature – its physical, biological, and social aspects – can prove useful in a person’s search for truth. Properly understood, God’s Word (Scripture) and God’s world (nature), as two revelations (one verbal, one physical) from the same God, will never contradict each other.

God

We believe in one infinitely perfect, eternal and personal God, the transcendent Creator and sovereign Sustainer of the universe. This one God is Triune, existing eternally and simultaneously as three distinct persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. All three persons in the Godhead share equally and completely the one divine nature, and are therefore the same God, coequal in power, nature, and glory.

Person of Christ

We believe that Jesus Christ is both true God (the second Person of the Trinity) and true man (the Incarnate Son of God). We also believe in the great events surrounding Jesus Christ’s life and ministry, including: His eternal preexistence, His virgin birth, His attesting miracles, His sinless life, His sacrificial death on the cross, His glorious bodily resurrection from the dead, His ascension into heaven, and His present work in heaven as High Priest and Advocate. He will return in glory to resurrect and judge all mankind.

Person of the Holy Spirit

We believe that the Holy Spirit, the third Person of the Trinity, is indeed a Divine Person, coequal with the Father and the Son. We also believe in the ministry of the Holy Spirit in salvation, a ministry which includes anointing and glorifying Christ, convicting men of their sin, bringing about the regeneration of lost sinners, and indwelling believers and empowering them for godly living and spiritual service.

Mankind

We believe God created mankind in His image and likeness (having rational, moral, relational, and spiritual capacities) to fellowship with Him and give Him glory. Human beings are therefore the crown of God’s creation (possessing inherent dignity and moral worth), and thus distinct in kind from all other life on earth. Adam and Eve, the first human beings, chose to rebel against God and go their own autonomous way. As a result, all of mankind became separated from God, the image of God in man distorted, and the sinful nature passed on to all their progeny. Because of original sin (which includes both corruption and guilt), unregenerate human beings are incapable of pleasing or commending themselves to God. The only remedy for mankind’s pitiful predicament is redemption through faith in Jesus Christ.

Redemption

We believe God has acted sovereignly to bridge the gap that separates people from Himself. He sent His Son, born of a virgin, attested by miracles and by a sinless life, to bear the full penalty for humanity’s sin. Jesus Christ suffered and died in the place of sinners, thus satisfying the Father’s just wrath against human sin, and effecting true reconciliation between God and mankind for those who believe. In the atoning death of Christ, both God’s love and God’s justice are fully manifested. The righteousness of Jesus Christ in perfectly fulfilling the law of God has been graciously credited to all believers. Redemption is solely a work of God’s grace, received exclusively through faith in Jesus Christ, and never by works of human merit.

Justification

We believe justification is a judicial act of God’s grace wherein He acquits a person of all sin and accepts that person as righteous in His sight because of the imputed righteousness of Christ. Justification is strictly a work of God’s grace, apprehended through faith alone, and solely on the account of Christ.

Resurrection

We believe Jesus Christ rose bodily from the dead, conquering sin, death, and all the powers of Satan. The resurrection is God’s historical affirmation and vindication of Jesus Christ’s unique identity, mission, and message. Historical evidence of the resurrection is manifest in Christ’s empty tomb, His many resurrection appearances, and in the emergence of the Christian church. Jesus Christ now resides at the right hand of the Father, and lives to indwell all who recognize their sinfulness, who repent, and who turn their lives over to His authority.

The Church

We believe the church is the spiritual body of Jesus Christ (its Founder, Head, and Shepherd) and that it encompasses all true believers at all times and places. The function of the church is to carry out the Lord’s expressed will through the power of the Holy Spirit. One of the central purposes of the church is to preach the Gospel (in both word and life), the good news that humankind can find salvation from sin through faith in Jesus Christ. All people who have placed their faith (confident trust) in Jesus Christ for salvation belong to the church and are, thus, the people of God. This community of believers is made up of people who are neither perfect nor sinless, but by grace their lives are coming more and more under the control of the Holy Spirit, expressing His love, joy, peace, and other Christ-like qualities.

Future Things

We believe the Lord Jesus Christ will return to this earth, personally, bodily, and visibly to establish his glorious reign in a kingdom that will never end. As the sovereign Lord, He will resurrect and judge all humanity. Those who have received His offer of life through the Gospel will go to eternal blessings in heaven; those who have rejected it, to eternal conscious torment in hell. We look forward to the blessed hope, Christ’s Second Coming in glory.

The Great Commission

We believe Jesus Christ is the only way of salvation. And since Christ has commissioned His people, the church, to go into all the world to disciple, to baptize, and to teach everyone everywhere to obey His Word, we desire, by His grace, to play our part in reaching the world with the Gospel of Christ.

Original article: Reasons to Believe