Michael Denton’s Awe-Inspiring Description of A Living Cell –What I’ve Been Reading (9)

In 1986, Michael Denton published Evolution: A Theory in Crisis. Many attribute this book with starting the Intelligent Design movement. Denton provides an elegant description of the living cell that I want simply to quote at length:

“To grasp the reality of life as it has been revealed by molecular biology, we must magnify a cell a thousand million times until it is twenty kilometers in diameter and resembles a giant airship large enough to cover a great city like London or New York. What we would then see would be an object of unparalleled complexity and adaptive design. On the surface of the cell we would see millions of openings, like the port holes of a vast space ship, opening and closing to allow a continual stream of materials to flow in and out. If we were to enter one of these openings we would find ourselves in a world of supreme technology and bewildering complexity. We would see endless highly organized corridors and conduits branching in every direction away from the perimeter of the cell, some leading to the central memory bank in the nucleus and others to assembly plants and processing units….A huge range of products and raw materials would shuttle along all the manifold conduits in a highly ordered fashion to and from all the various assembly plants in the outer regions of the cell.

“We would wonder at the level of control implicit in the movement of so many objects down so many seemingly endless conduits, all in perfect unison. We would see all around us, in every direction we looked, all sorts of robot-like machines….

“We would see that nearly every feature of our own advanced machines had its analogue in the cell: artificial languages and their decoding systems, memory banks for information storage and retrieval, elegant control systems regulating the automated assembly of parts and components, error fail-safe and proof-reading devices utilized for quality control, assembly processes involving the principle of prefabrication and modular construction….

“What we would be witnessing would be an object resembling an immense automated factory, a factory larger than a city and carrying out almost as many unique functions as all the manufacturing activities of man on earth. However, it would be a factory which would have one capacity not equaled in any of our own most advanced machines, for it would be capable of replicating its entire structure within a matter of a few hours. To witness such an act at a magnification of one thousand million times would be an awe-inspring spectacle.” (pp. 328-29).

Awe-inspiring indeed. “I will praise You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made; Marvelous are Your works, And that my soul knows very well.” (Psalms 139:14)

Cross-posted at www.theologyforthechurch.commobile online

Cognitive Whiplash – What I’ve Been Reading (8)

I dare you to read Andrew Snelling’s Earth’s Catastrophic Past and Davis Young’s The Bible, Rocks and Time side by side. Both men are professional geologists, and both books exhibit the proficiency and expertise of their respective authors. Snelling’s two volume set argues for young-earth creationism and that Noah’s flood created the preponderance of the geological record. Young and his co-author, Ralph Stearley, present the case for an ancient earth and that Noah’s flood was a local phenomena. Snelling’s book is intended to be a successor to Whitcomb and Morris’ seminal work The Genesis Flood (1961). Young and Stearley’s book is a revision of Davis’ earlier Christianity and the Age of the Earth (1982). The two works together total over 1500 pages. I just finished both and I’m suffering from cognitive whiplash.

Snelling is thorough in his presentation. He realizes that he is arguing against the consensus view of the geological community and therefore must meticulously make his case. Davis and Stearley’s give more attention to the historical development of the debate about the age of the earth, but they also give methodical attention to the evidences for their position. Geological laymen (like me) will probably find the books to be a difficult slog. Both books attempt to make their respective cases via cumulative arguments—piling up one example after another. Again speaking as a non-geologist, for me reading them–at times–was like being pummeled to death with ping pong balls.

Snelling and Young often present the same geological data—the geological column of the Grand Canyon, the mid-Atlantic ridge, coral reefs, etc. But they almost always arrive at diametrically opposite conclusions.

What’s going on here? There are at least four possible explanations: (1) The postmodernists and deconstructionists are right–all meaning and truth is subjective and created by the reader. In this case the text is the geological column and the readers are the geologists. (2) At least one side is engaged in deliberate deceit. (3) Spiritual forces are at work. One side is blinded by the evil one while the other’s mind is divinely illuminated. Or (4) at least one side has an almost pathological inability to see the truth. These blind spots render them unable to see what should be obvious.

I don’t like any of the four above possibilities. I am open to another explanation. The postmodernist answer (1), is self-referentially contradictory. Deconstructionism may work as a descriptor but fails as a philosophy. As for explanation (2), there is nothing about Snelling or Davis that indicates either would be willing to deceive or be deliberately dishonest. As for (3), Christians have no doubt about spiritual warfare, and that spiritual battles occur in every avenue of human endeavor, and this includes the scientific realm. However, both Davis and Snelling (and the respective Christian communities they represent) affirm the Lordship of Jesus Christ over their vocations as geologists. Both are servants of Christ. I am in no position to make a spiritual determination about either one. Of the four possible explanations, the phenomena of blind spots (4) is the most likely.

Explanation (4) is also the most optimistic, even if one or both sides seems to be intransigent. Here the community of faith can play a crucial role. If Davis and Snelling, and others who hold to their respective views, will meet, talk, and pray together; if they will allow other godly, concerned, and informed brethren to speak truth into their lives; if they will be humble enough to acknowledge their respective blind spots, then it will be possible for progress to be made and for some type of consensus to be achieved.

As it stands now, the dissonance between the two geologists and their respective books is so great that one has to wonder if they are looking at the same planet.

This post was cross-posted at www.theologyforthechurch.com

“The Pagans Believe the Earth Is Round; Therefore It Must Be Flat”–What I’ve Been Reading (7)

Cosmas Indicopleustes, a 6th century monk, wrote The Christian Topography to contend that the earth was flat. Actually, he argued for more than that. Comas declared that the flat-earth view was the only truly Christian view, and that any Christian who entertained the notion of a round earth was tainted with worldy wisdom and had compromised the gospel.  Cosmas didn’t arrive at this position in a vacuum.  He was responding to pagan philosophers, such as Proclus (ca 411-485), who used the Ptolemaic model of the universe to argue against the Christian doctrine of creation. According to Ptolemy, the world consisted of a round earth surrounded by concentric spheres, and these spheres were embedded (in ascending order) with the moon, sun, planets and finally the stars. The pagans, following Aristotle, argued that the earth’s shape–that of a circle–is a manifestation of its unending duration. A circle has no beginning or end. A round earth is an eternal one, they reasoned, so therefore the creation account in Genesis must be false. Instead of challenging their logic, Cosmas decided to refute their premise.  As far as he was concerned, if the pagans believe the earth is round then that was proof that it must be flat. The debate ultimately wasn’t about the shape of the planet–it was about the doctrine of creation.  In The Christian Topography, Cosmas attempted to prove that the earth is flat and the universe is in the shape of a chest. He provided plenty of drawings to make his case. Oh dear.


Cosmas' chest-shaped universe. Note the sun hiding behind a great northern mountain.

Cosmas wasn’t so angry at the pagans themselves as he was at the Christians who were tempted to agree with them on this point.  Christians who accepted the Ptolemaic description of the cosmos were the real focus of his denunciations. “It is against such men my words are directed….” He denounced them as “two-faced” because they wished to “occupy a middle position.” They “laugh at everyone and are themselves laughed at by all.”

Before becoming a monk, Cosmas had been a sailor and in that occupation had traveled much of the known world. He used his first-hand knowledge of geography to make his case, and what a case it was.  He argued that the world was a large island, surrounded by a large ocean which could not be navigated. Cosmas believed that the sun was 42 miles in diameter and traveled in an arc 4400 miles above the earth.  Each evening the sun moves behind a large mountain in the north, which gives us nighttime. Cosmas expended great effort to demonstrate the physical and logical impossibility of a round earth, but he made his strongest arguments about what he perceived to be the theological problems with the Ptolemaic model.  If the world is round, concluded Cosmas, then the pagans “are therefore justified in denying the resurrection of the body.”

Cosmas' map of a square shaped earth

One of the more fascinating sections of the book is Cosmas’ account of when the flat-earthers and the round-earthers met in Alexandria for a debate. Each side presented arguments, counter-arguments, and even conducted experiments.  Evidently Cosmas believed his side won. He reported to his mentor, “And it is the truth I speak, O most God-beloved Father, through the power of Christ they went away dumbfounded and sadly crestfallen, having been put to shame by our exposure of their fictions.”  

Cosmas' drawing lampooning the notion of people on the underside of a round earth

Despite Cosmas’ bluster, his side lost the debate among the broader Christian community.  The Medieval church did not believe the earth was flat. Scholars such as the Venerable Bede, Roger Bacon, and Thomas Aquinas all accepted a spherical earth. So what is the take-away from Cosmas? It is the lesson that in the integration of faith and science we must discern what the real issues are and what they are not. We must know what is essential and non-negotiable, and what areas are more modest. Christians have nothing to fear from the study of the natural world.  Our God–the God of the Bible–is Creator of the heavens and the earth. The One Who revealed Himself to us in Jesus Christ is the One Who created the realm that the scientist studies–including quarks, DNA, and the geological column.  God has not given us a spirit of fear. Let’s explore the natural order–His creation–with reverence and confidence.    

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