Tag Archives: Design

The formation of the elements required for complex embodied life is fine-tuned

Apologetics and the progress of science
Apologetics and the progress of science

Some atheists who don’t understand the fine-tuning argument like to assert that the constants and quantities that are fine-tuned to allow for the existence of complex, embodied life can be changed arbitrarily, and life would still exist as it does now. They say that maybe we would have a ridges in our foreheads like Klingons, or maybe we would have longer ears like Vulcans or maybe green skin like Orions. The evidential support for this view seems to be grounded in Star Trek TV shows, not peer-reviewed evidence. Are atheists right to ground their rejection of a cosmic Designer in science fiction television shows? What does the peer-reviewed research say?

The fine-tuning argument

First, let’s review the structure of the fine-tuning argument.

The argument goes like this:

  1. The fine-tuning of the universe to support life is either due to law, chance or design
  2. It is not due to law or chance
  3. Therefore, the fine-tuning is due to design

Although each permutation of values for the constants and quantities is equally improbable, the vast majority of the permutations will not permit life.

Let’s review:

  • Life has certain minimal requirements; long-term stable source of energy, a large number of different chemical elements, an element that can serve as a hub for joining together other elements into compounds, a universal solvent, etc.
  • In order to meet these minimal requirements, the physical constants, (such as the gravitational constant), and the ratios between physical constants, need to be withing a narrow range of values in order to support the minimal requirements for life of any kind.
  • Slight changes to any of the physical constants, or to the ratios between the constants, will result in a universe inhospitable to life.
  • The range of possible values spans 70 orders of magnitude.
  • The constants are selected by whoever creates the universe. They are not determined by physical laws. And the extreme probabilities involved required put the fine-tuning beyond the reach of chance.
  • Although each individual selection of constants and ratios is as unlikely as any other selection, the vast majority of these possibilities do not support the minimal requirements of life of any kind. (In the same way as any hand of 5 cards that is dealt is as likely as any other, but you are overwhelmingly likely NOT to get a royal flush. In our case, a royal flush is a life-permitting universe).

Now let’s see a specific example: carbon and oxygen formation.

Carbon is that element that can serve as a hub for larger molecules, and oxygen is also a vital element, since it is a component of water, which is required for life (universal solvent). Both are required for complex life of any imaginable kind.

Now for the study.

Here is an article on Science Daily about the fine-tuning argument.

It says:

Life as we know it is based upon the elements of carbon and oxygen. Now a team of physicists, including one from North Carolina State University, is looking at the conditions necessary to the formation of those two elements in the universe. They’ve found that when it comes to supporting life, the universe leaves very little margin for error.

Both carbon and oxygen are produced when helium burns inside of giant red stars. Carbon-12, an essential element we’re all made of, can only form when three alpha particles, or helium-4 nuclei, combine in a very specific way. The key to formation is an excited state of carbon-12 known as the Hoyle state, and it has a very specific energy — measured at 379 keV (or 379,000 electron volts) above the energy of three alpha particles. Oxygen is produced by the combination of another alpha particle and carbon.

NC State physicist Dean Lee and German colleagues Evgeny Epelbaum, Hermann Krebs, Timo Laehde and Ulf-G. Meissner had previously confirmed the existence and structure of the Hoyle state with a numerical lattice that allowed the researchers to simulate how protons and neutrons interact. These protons and neutrons are made up of elementary particles called quarks. The light quark mass is one of the fundamental parameters of nature, and this mass affects particles’ energies.

In new lattice calculations done at the Juelich Supercomputer Centre the physicists found that just a slight variation in the light quark mass will change the energy of the Hoyle state, and this in turn would affect the production of carbon and oxygen in such a way that life as we know it wouldn’t exist.

[…]The researchers’ findings appear in Physical Review Letters.

There are many, many other examples of fine-tuning of the constants and quantities to permit complex, embodied life. And, as we’ll see below, this evidence is admitted by atheists.

Atheists agree: the fine-tuning is a fact

Let me give you a citation from the best one of all, Martin Rees. Martin Rees is an atheist and a qualified astronomer. He wrote a book called “Just Six Numbers: The Deep Forces That Shape The Universe”, (Basic Books: 2001). In it, he discusses 6 numbers that need to be fine-tuned in order to have a life-permitting universe.

In chapter 1, Rees writes:

Mathematical laws underpin the fabric of our universe — not just atoms, but galaxies, stars and people. The properties of atoms — their sizes and masses, how many different kinds there are, and the forces linking them together — determine the chemistry of our everyday world. The very existence of atoms depends on forces and particles deep inside them. The objects that astronomers study — planets, stars and galaxies — are controlled by the force of gravity. And everything takes place in the arena of an expanding universe, whose properties were imprinted into it at the time of the initial Big Bang.

[…]This book describes six numbers that now seem especially significant.

[…]Perhaps there are some connections between these numbers. At the moment, however, we cannot predict any one of them from the values of the others.

[…]These six numbers constitute a ‘recipe’ for a universe. Moreover, the outcome is sensitive to their values: if any one of them were to be ‘untuned’, there would be no stars and no life. Is this tuning just a brute fact, a coincidence? Or is it the providence of a benign Creator?

There are some atheists who deny the fine-tuning, but these atheists are in firm opposition to the progress of science. The more science has progressed, the more constants, ratios and quantities we have discovered that need to be fine-tuned. Science is going in a theistic direction. Next, let’s see how atheists try to account for the fine-tuning.

Atheistic responses to the fine-tuning evidence

There are two common responses among atheists to this argument.

The first is to speculate that there are actually an infinite number of other universes that are not fine-tuned, (i.e. – the gambler’s fallacy). All these other universes don’t support life. We just happen to be in the one universe is fine-tuned for life. The problem is that there is no way of directly observing these other universes and no independent evidence that they exist.

Here is an excerpt from an article in Discover magazine, (which is hostile to theism and Christianity).

Short of invoking a benevolent creator, many physicists see only one possible explanation: Our universe may be but one of perhaps infinitely many universes in an inconceivably vast multiverse. Most of those universes are barren, but some, like ours, have conditions suitable for life.

The idea is controversial. Critics say it doesn’t even qualify as a scientific theory because the existence of other universes cannot be proved or disproved. Advocates argue that, like it or not, the multiverse may well be the only viable non­religious explanation for what is often called the “fine-tuning problem”—the baffling observation that the laws of the universe seem custom-tailored to favor the emergence of life.

The second response by atheists is that the human observers that exist today, 14 billion years after the universe was created out of nothing, actually caused the fine-tuning by going back in time and causing the universe to be fine-tuned. This solution would mean that although humans did not exist at the time the of the big bang, they are going to be able to reach back in time at some point in the future and manually fine-tune the universe.

Here is an excerpt from and article in the New Scientist, (which is hostile to theism and Christianity).

…maybe we should approach cosmic fine-tuning not as a problem but as a clue. Perhaps it is evidence that we somehow endow the universe with certain features by the mere act of observation… observers are creating the universe and its entire history right now. If we in some sense create the universe, it is not surprising that the universe is well suited to us.

So, there are two choices for atheists. Either an infinite number of unobservable universes that are not fine-tuned, or humans go back in time at some future point and fine-tune the beginning of the universe, billions of years in the past. I think I will prefer the design explanation to those alternatives.

Positive arguments for Christian theism

New study: cameras capture wild crows using tools they made to hunt for insects

Crow using a tool he made to hunt for bugs
Crow using a tool he made to hunt for bugs

By now regular readers know that birds are my favorite creatures of all, especially parrots. Pretty much any new study about how great birds are will be blogged about here. Partly to bolster the argument for design in nature, and partly just because I think that birds are so awesome!

Here is the latest bird news from Science Daily.

Excerpt:

Scientists have been given an extraordinary glimpse into how wild New Caledonian crows make and use ‘hooked stick tools’ to hunt for insect prey.

Dr Jolyon Troscianko, from the University of Exeter, and Dr Christian Rutz, from the University of St Andrews, have captured first video recordings documenting how these tropical corvids fashion these particularly complex tools in the wild.

The pair developed tiny video ‘spy-cameras’ which were attached to the crows, to observe their natural foraging behaviour.

They discovered two instances of hooked stick tool making on the footage they recorded, with one crow spending a minute making the tool, before using it to probe for food in tree crevices and even in leaf litter on the ground.

The findings are reported in the Royal Society’s journal Biology Letters on Wednesday, December 23.

[…]”In one scene, a crow drops its tool, and then recovers it from the ground shortly afterwards, suggesting they value their tools and don’t simply discard them after a single use.” According to Rutz, this observation agrees with recent aviary experiments conducted by his group: “Crows really hate losing their tools, and will use all sorts of tricks to keep them safe. We even observed them storing tools temporarily in tree holes, the same way a human would put a treasured pen into a pen holder.”

New Caledonian crows (Corvus moneduloides) are found on the South Pacific island of New Caledonia.

They can use their bills to whittle twigs and leaves into bug-grabbing implements; some believe their tool-use is so advanced that it rivals that of some primates.

OK, that is pretty cool, but on crows are not the most cuddly birds. However, Goffin cockatoos are pretty cuddly, and there was a related story about them.

Goffin cockatoo using a tool he made to scoop up food through cage bars
Goffin cockatoo using a tool he made to scoop up food through cage bars

First, this one from November 2012: (Science Daily)

A cockatoo from a species not known to use tools in the wild has been observed spontaneously making and using tools for reaching food and other objects.

A Goffin’s cockatoo called ‘Figaro’, that has been reared in captivity and lives near Vienna, used his powerful beak to cut long splinters out of wooden beams in its aviary, or twigs out of a branch, to reach and rake in objects out of its reach. Researchers from the Universities of Oxford and Vienna filmed Figaro making and using these tools.

How the bird discovered how to make and use tools is unclear but shows how much we still don’t understand about the evolution of innovative behaviour and intelligence.

A report of the research is published this week in Current Biology…

And then an update to the story – a new study showing that the cockatoo is actually able to teach other birds how to make tools as well: (Science Daily)

Goffin’s cockatoos can learn how to make and use wooden tools from each other, a new study has found.

The discovery, made by scientists from Oxford University, the University of Vienna, and the Max Planck Institute at Seewiesen, is thought to be the first controlled experimental evidence for the social transmission of tool use in any bird species.

Goffin’s cockatoo (Cacatua goffini) is a curious species of Indonesian parrot not known to use tools in the wild. At a laboratory in Austria the researchers had observed a captive adult male Goffin’s cockatoo named ‘Figaro’ spontaneously start to sculpt stick tools out of wooden aviary beams to use them for raking in nuts out of his reach. To investigate if such individual invention could be passed on to other cockatoos the team used Figaro as a ‘role model’, exposing other birds to tool use demonstrations, some with Figaro as ‘teacher’ and others without his ‘students’ seeing him at work.

In the experiments one cockatoo group was allowed to observe Figaro skilfully employing a ready-made stick tool, while another could see what researchers called ‘ghost demonstrations’ — either seeing the tools displacing the nuts by themselves, while being controlled by magnets hidden under a table, or seeing the nuts moving towards Figaro without his intervention, again using magnets to displace the food. The birds were all then placed in front of an identical problem, with a ready-made tool lying on the ground nearby.

Three males and three females that saw Figaro’s complete demonstration interacted much more with potential tools and other components of the problem than those seeing ghost demos. They picked up sticks more than the ghost demo control groups and generally seemed more interested in achieving the result. Remarkably, all three males in this group acquired proficient tool use, while neither the females in the same group nor males and females in the ghost demo groups did.

A report of the research is published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

During the Christmas holidays, I’ve been working on a technical project that is now deployed and functioning on a cloud service, backed by a data store. One of the reasons I have been able to keep at it despite all the festivities going on, is because my pet bird has been flying and landing on top the computer monitor and urging me to get cracking on the next feature in the feature list. He is very bossy.

Related posts

New study: parrots capable of using and sharing tools

Greater vasa parrot using a tool to extract calcium
Greater vasa parrot using a tool

All right, well, awareness of my tremendous affection for all things bird-related has spread to all my friends, and now whenever there is an interesting bird study, (or funny video of owls blinking), I can expect to be informed about it.

My friend Melissa, who is doing a degree in STEM, and just got all As, sent me this new study from Science Daily.

It says:

Psychologists at the University of York and University of St Andrews have uncovered the first evidence of tool use by greater vasa parrots (Coracopsis vasa).

Studying ten captive parrots, researchers in the Department of Psychology at York observed the birds adopt a novel tool-using technique to acquire calcium from seashells and also the active sharing of tools among themselves.

The birds used small pebbles or date pits to grind calcium powder from the shells or to break off small pieces of shell to ingest. This behaviour, never before seen in this species, is the first evidence of a nonhuman using tools for grinding, and one of the few reports of nonhuman animals sharing tools directly.

Observing and filming the parrots over an eight month period (March to October), researchers documented their interactions with cockle shells on the floor of their aviary. Shells are a known source of calcium for birds.

Five out of ten birds were documented using tools, placing either pebbles or date pits inside shells to grind against the shell, or using them as a we

Yes, this is actually really important if you are a bird owner, as I am. Male parrots tend to have problems that are specific to their breed, but female parrots of any breed seem to run into this egg-laying problem where they law so many eggs, that they run out of calcium to make the eggshells. This is called “egg binding” and it can kill your bird if it’s not caught early.

Now, what do you think that a ambitious and chivalrous male parrot would do about egg binding when courting a delightful female parrot?

This:

Interest in the shells was greatest from March to mid-April, just before the breeding season — this may be due to calcium supplementation being critical for egg-laying. Researchers were therefore initially surprised to find that it was the males, not the females who showed the greatest interest in shells.

However, observation of the parrots’ breeding behaviour showed that males often engaged in regurgitative feeding of females before copulating with them, thus potentially passing on the calcium benefits.

Megan Lambert, PhD student in York’s Department of Psychology and lead author on the study, said: “The use of tools by nonhuman animals remains an exceedingly rare phenomenon. These observations provide new insights into the tool-using capabilities of parrots and give rise to further questions as to why this species uses tools.

“Tool use could reflect an innate predisposition in the parrots, or it could be the result of individual trial and error learning or some form of social learning. Whether these birds also use tools in the wild remains to be explored, but ultimately these observations highlight the greater vasa parrot as a species of interest for further studies of physical cognition.”

That’s right!

Here is a video linked in the article:

Now, do you know what this reminds me of? It reminds me of that post on love that I wrote a while back. When a man loves a woman, he tries to take away her trouble, or to take trouble for her, so that she is protected and her life is easier. He does things that will help her because he cares about her. It would be nice if more men acted like these birds, and tried to show that they cared by protecting and providing. And it would be nice if more women looked for protecting and providing, and were attracted by them.

Convergence detected in the genetic structure of bats and dolphins

Apologetics and the progress of science
Apologetics and the progress of science

We have to start this post with the definition of convergence in biology.

In evolutionary biology, convergent evolution is the process whereby organisms not closely related (not monophyletic), independently evolve similar traits as a result of having to adapt to similar environments or ecological niches.

It is the opposite of divergent evolution, where related species evolve different traits.

On a molecular level, this can happen due to random mutation unrelated to adaptive changes; see long branch attraction. In cultural evolution, convergent evolution is the development of similar cultural adaptations to similar environmental conditions by different peoples with different ancestral cultures. An example of convergent evolution is the similar nature of the flight/wings of insects, birds, pterosaurs, and bats.

All four serve the same function and are similar in structure, but each evolved independently.

Jonathan Wells explains the problem that convergence poses for naturalistic evolution:

Human designers reuse designs that work well. Life forms also reuse certain structures (the camera eye, for example, appears in humans and octopuses). How well does this evidence support Darwinian evolution? Does it support intelligent design more strongly?

Evolutionary biologists attribute similar biological structures to either common descent or convergence. Structures are said to result from convergence if they evolved independently from distinct lines of organisms. Darwinian explanations of convergence strain credulity because they must account for how trial-and-error tinkering (natural selection acting on random variations) could produce strikingly similar structures in widely different organisms and environments. It’s one thing for evolution to explain similarity by common descent—the same structure is then just carried along in different lineages. It’s another to explain it as the result of blind tinkering that happened to hit on the same structure multiple times. Design proponents attribute such similar structures to common design (just as an engineer may use the same parts in different machines). If human designers frequently reuse successful designs, the designer of nature can surely do the same.

I’m a software engineer, and we re-use components all the time for different programs that have no “common ancestor”. E.g. – I can develop my String function library and use it in my web application and my Eclipse IDE plug-in, and those two Java programs have nothing in common. So you find the same bits in two different programs because I am the developer of both programs. But the two programs don’t extend from a common program that was used for some other purpose – they have no “common ancestor” program.

Now with that in mind, take a look at this recent article from Science Daily, which Mysterious Micah sent me.

Excerpt:

The evolution of similar traits in different species, a process known as convergent evolution, is widespread not only at the physical level, but also at the genetic level, according to new research led by scientists at Queen Mary University of London and published in Nature this week.

The scientists investigated the genomic basis for echolocation, one of the most well-known examples of convergent evolution to examine the frequency of the process at a genomic level.

Echolocation is a complex physical trait that involves the production, reception and auditory processing of ultrasonic pulses for detecting unseen obstacles or tracking down prey, and has evolved separately in different groups of bats and cetaceans (including dolphins).

The scientists carried out one of the largest genome-wide surveys of its type to discover the extent to which convergent evolution of a physical feature involves the same genes.

They compared genomic sequences of 22 mammals, including the genomes of bats and dolphins, which independently evolved echolocation, and found genetic signatures consistent with convergence in nearly 200 different genomic regions concentrated in several ‘hearing genes’.

[…]Consistent with an involvement in echolocation, signs of convergence among bats and the bottlenose dolphin were seen in many genes previously implicated in hearing or deafness.

“We had expected to find identical changes in maybe a dozen or so genes but to see nearly 200 is incredible,” explains Dr Joe Parker, from Queen Mary’s School of Biological and Chemical Sciences and first author on the paper.

“We know natural selection is a potent driver of gene sequence evolution, but identifying so many examples where it produces nearly identical results in the genetic sequences of totally unrelated animals is astonishing.”

Nature is the most prestigious peer-reviewed science journal. This is solid material.

There is an earlier article from 2010 in New Scientist that talked about one of the previous genes that matched for hearing capability.

Excerpt:

Bats and dolphins trod an identical genetic path to evolve a vital component of the complex sonar systems they use to pursue and catch prey.

The finding is unusual, because although many creatures have independently evolved characteristics such as eyes, tusks or wings, they usually took diverse genetic routes to get there.

Analysis of a specific gene has now demonstrated that although bats live in air and dolphins in water, where sound travels five times faster, they independently evolved a near-identical gene that allows them to accept high-frequency sound in the ear – vital for sonar.

The gene makes prestin, a protein in hair cells of the cochlea, which is the organ in the inner ear where sonar signals are accepted and amplified. Prestin changes shape when exposed to high-frequency sound, and this in turn deforms the fine hair cells, setting off an electrical impulse to the brain. So the protein has the important jobs of detecting and selecting high-frequency sounds for amplification.

When researchers examined the molecular structure of the prestin gene from a range of animals, they found that the variants in echolocating bats and dolphins were virtually indistinguishable.

Indistinguishable genes in animals that don’t share a common ancestor? Maybe a better explanation for the evidence we have is – common designer.

Target acquisition and interception in dragonflies

Apologetics and the progress of science
Apologetics and the progress of science

Here is a fascinating post about some of the capabilities of dragonflies from Evolution News.

Selective attention

First, dragonflies have “selective attention” – the ability to focus on a single prey and ignore other distractions:

Dragonflies are among the best flyers in the insect world. Their twin pairs of paper-thin wings allow them to hover and move in all directions, even in mating. When the time comes to dart after prey at high speed, they rarely miss.

What’s their secret? One is “selective attention” — a trait previously known only in primates, according to new research from the University of Adelaide, Australia. Selective attention is the ability to focus on one object and exclude others. Just as a tennis player must focus on the ball and ignore the cheers of the crowd, a dragonfly must pick out one target from a swarm of insects and avoid being distracted by all the others.

Here’s a snip from the research paper:

Our data make a compelling case that CSTMD1 reflects competitive selection of one target. We emphasize “competitive,” because the attended target is not always the same between trials or even within a trial, as seen in strikingly perfect switches from one to the other…. Competition is further suggested by rare examples where the activity observed under Pair stimulation initially lags both T1and T2 responses… suggesting initial conflict in the underlying neural network before resolution of competition by a “winning” target.

We previously showed that CSTMD1 still responds robustly to a target even when it is embedded within a high-contrast natural scene containing numerous potential distracters. Taken together with recent evidence that the behavioral state of insects strongly modulates responses of neurons involved in visuomotor control, our new data thus suggest a hitherto unexpected sophistication in higher-order control of insect visual processing, akin to selective attention in primates.Perhaps the most remarkable feature of our data is that once the response “locks” onto a target (or following a switch), the second target exerts no influence on the neuron’s response: the distracter is ignored completely.

In order to succeed at the task of catching its prey, the dragonfly has to tune out all other distractions.

Target selection

In addition, dragonflies have the ability to intercept a target in mid-air – similar missile defense systems on AEGIS cruisers and destroyers.

The Evolution News article explains:

Another paper on dragonflies shows that these marvels of the insect world are equipped with navigational equipment that can do vector calculus. In the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Gonzalez-Bellido and a team at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute discerned “Eight pairs of descending visual neurons in the dragonfly [that] give wing motor centers accurate population vector of prey direction.

Intercepting a moving object requires prediction of its future location. This complex task has been solved by dragonflies, who intercept their prey in midair with a 95% success rate. In this study, we show that a group of 16 neurons, called target-selective descending neurons (TSDNs), code a population vector that reflects the direction of the target with high accuracy and reliability across 360°. The TSDN spatial (receptive field) and temporal (latency) properties matched the area of the retina where the prey is focused and the reaction time, respectively, during predatory flights. The directional tuning curves and morphological traits (3D tracings) for each TSDN type were consistent among animals, but spike rates were not. Our results emphasize that a successful neural circuit for target tracking and interception can be achieved with few neurons and that in dragonflies this information is relayed from the brain to the wing motor centers in population vector form.

What did I make of this? Well, evidence like this always causes me to think aboutthe reality of God, and the disturbing thought that we do not live in an accidental universe where I can do whatever I want and be accountable to no one. It’s easier to believe that – it requires less work and it frees us to be our own boss and make our happiness the first priority. As individuals, it’s very tempting for us to think that we are number one, and to resent our obligations to anyone else. The problem is that the scientific data doesn’t support that worldview. The facts are what they are and it is up to us, now, to try to find out who the designer is and what he wants from us.