Monday, 25 June 2012

Arctic warming: not all bad news

A survey in the Economist (16 June 2012) makes it startlingly clear that the Arctic is changing fast – much faster than climate science models predicted. Which is in itself an indication that there is a lot we don’t understand. The Antarctic is a less immediate problem, although on balance that too is slowly warming.

The main points as I understand them are listed below.

  • Over the last 60 years the Arctic has been warming at twice the rate of the rest of the world. The average temperature there has increased by 1.5 deg C since 1951, compared to a global average of 0.7 deg C.

  • Two billion tonnes of ice from the Greenland glaciers are melting each year – four times the rate of a decade ago. This means huge amounts of fresh water running into the sea and changing the ecosystem, the ocean currents and the local, possibly global, climate. Major Gulf Stream alterations are still thought to be possible but probably over hundreds or thousands of years, which is fortunate since the effects would be enormous.

  • The long term threat is sea level rise. If all the Greenland glaciers, i.e. land-bound ice, melted the global sea level would rise by 7.2 m, more than enough to drown most cities in the world but this would take centuries. More imminently, a metre rise could happen in 50 years and this would still cause serious flooding. (NB: the melting of sea ice makes no difference to sea level.)

  • Stocks of cod and other edible fish are increasing as the sea temperature rises but some forms (mainly?) of microscopic life are declining. This could be particularly useful as demand for protein grows globally. Hopefully a new balance to suit the higher temperatures will establish it itself.

  • Polar bears, and probably much other life, are not in danger since they appear to have survived periods in the remote past when the Arctic was totally free of ice.

  •  Arctic sea ice is contracting in area relentlessly and much faster than predicted. The minimum extent of ice is always in September and it has decreased from 8 million square km in 1950 to about 5 million last year. It was predicted only to fall to 7 million.

  • New energy and mineral resources are now becoming available as the ice retreats. According to the report the likelihood of conflict is minimal since there is more than enough for everyone and none of the nations involved want war.

  • Russia, Canada, USA and the Scandinavian countries are planning to exploit these resources and to use the sea routes which are now beginning to open up. These are the North-West Passage (off Canada) and the Northern Sea Route (off Russia).

  • There is a danger of runaway global warming driven by methane released from permafrost melting and the accelerating reduction in albedo (% of solar energy reflected back by the surface) as soil rather than ice is exposed to sunlight and as industrial soot darkens the remaining ice.

The Economist report is excellent and well balanced. As you can see, there may actually be some benefits but given the immense complexity of the biosphere we must tread carefully. Life is the most unpredictable ingredient because of its creative nature and we have to remember that the Earth’s atmosphere of today was generated by life over billions of years. The original atmosphere was an obnoxious mixture of carbon dioxide, methane and ammonia. It was evolving living plants and creatures that made it what it is today – mainly nitrogen and oxygen, totally benign to human beings when not polluted by us.

See also

Cosmic weather and climate change

Arctic soot and sea-level rise


Sunday, 24 June 2012

Reforming the world economy

Individual countries throughout the world have got themselves into enormous debt – either government spending debt, as in Greece, or personal debt, as in the Anglo-American economies (including Ireland and Spain), or a mixture of both.


Debt levels of the 4 largest economies in Europe
as % of GDP (2009 figures) + GDP growth rate

Total debt

GDP growth rate 2010
% p.a.
Currently the centre of attention is the eurozone but this is a world problem. The European Union has a turnover of around 15 trillion dollars p.a, slightly more than the USA, so what happens here affects everywhere, especially highly indebted countries like the USA, UK and Japan.

Debt levels as % of GDP (2009 figures) + GDP growth rate

Total debt

Institutions debt
GDP growth rate 2010
% p.a.
If European banks start failing and governments default on their debt it will have a large global impact, especially on the USA and the UK, which are where unsound financial practices began and where the total debt burden is highest (private and government debt as % of GDP).  It seems to me highly unlikely that the eurozone will be allowed to break up, except possibly to eject Greece in an orderly, internationally coordinated way. All economic power blocs of the world recognise that the entire global trade and wealth generating system would be severely disrupted, probably for decades, if the eurozone broke up. 

The eurozone is a victim of the following, most of which originated outside the eurozone and from a worldview out of kilter with reality:

  •  government over- spending by nations , largely made unsustainable by the need to rescue banks (especially in Spain and Ireland)

  •  reckless individual borrowing to buy houses or finance consumption, together with the easy lending which exploited the naivety or vulnerability or greed of the borrowers.

  •  gambling with shares, loans and derivatives by finance workers.

  •  ignorance of the debt owed to the biosphere (clean air and water, plus an ecosystem that supports growth of food).

 It is difficult to know whether to call these practices sinful or stupid, but they certainly are not good in any sense. This is a global problem and it has to be solved if more poverty, war, revolution, starvation and economic stagnation are to be avoided.

To correct this situation most would agree to the following, all highly interconnected and requiring a lot of international cooperation: 

1. The governments need to become more financially efficient

 Honest presentation of government statistics with no hiding of debts or distortion of spending for party political gain. This will allow them to run the social, health, security and military services in a realistic way.

2. The debts need to be paid back or written off

All governments and banks need to repay what they owe over a sufficiently long but rigorously enforced period to avoid too much economic disruption. Some creditors of international investment banks will have to accept losses rather than expect tax payers to bear them. Overall the debt levels are so high that they will have to be partially passed on to the next generation.

3. Finance needs to be tightly regulated

Buying and selling of shares cannot continue on a short term basis: entrepreneurs wishing to build up a wealth-generating enterprise must be given a reasonable period, typically 5 years. Large corporations must pay the social costs of transferring their activities to the region of cheapest labour. City traders cannot be permitted to ride the real economy by buying and selling on short timescales (e.g. a fraction of a second), thereby creating a fantasy economy comparable in turnover to the real one which at some point has to be called in to rescue it.

4. The world economy needs to grow qualitatively rather than quantitatively

 To bring those burdened with poverty or starvation or disease to a reasonable living standard with enough leisure to make them fully human as well as to provide a qualitatively better life for all, where knowledge, skill and creativity are the drivers rather than consumption, the world economy needs to grow in some way, a very different way from the way it has in the past. This is probably the biggest challenge of all. One possibility is exploration of our universe and the celebration of God as revealed in the natural world.

5. Accounting needs to become realistic

There are many ways of presenting the annual balance sheets, profit-and-loss statements and cash flows of companies, charities and public corporations.  These are meant to reflect the real financial state and outlook of an organisation but in reality accountants tend to slant them towards vested interests, albeit within the letter of whatever convention they have adopted. Also, accountants have to work towards quantifying the cost of taking from the earth’s resources.   

These are technical problems but also, more importantly, ethical ones and have to be tackled on a world scale, in a spirit of humility and desperation, yet without attempting to turn our culturally rich and diverse world into a bleak monoculture run by demagogues. As a Christian I would say that to get it right we have to get into a right relationship with God but I am also aware that this will not be easy given the greed of humans and the pride of those who do not even acknowledge the existence of their maker.

Hopefully, time will not run out on us.


See also

The age of debt: the party's over

World debt: getting a grip

Sunday, 17 June 2012

Life, enzymes and big numbers

It is commonly stated that living organisms are made of 20 amino acids, often referred to as the ‘building blocks of life’, as though just a bit of juggling and a few hundred million years of natural selection would have led to the creation by chance of the first living organisms of which we are aware (i.e. bacteria). See also Natural technology: the bacterium. It is like looking at the bricks in New York city and saying that this ‘explains’ the formation and functioning of this great metropolis, with its transportation technology; cyber networks; telephone, water and power systems; gardens, theatres, cinemas, museums, vibrant streets and communities. All that was needed were various kinds of brick and the rest would follow by natural selection and chance.

Just how irrational is such an approach (not to mention literally soul destroying) was calculated in Cosmic Life Force by Sir Fred Hoyle, FRS, and Chandra Wickramasinghe, first published in 1988.

The simplest living systems of which we are aware, and which appeared a few hundred million years after the creation of the planet, consist of these 20 amino acids arranged into about 2000 enzymes, comparable in complexity to the one below. These enzymes perform a complex spectrum of functions and behave in what can only be described as a purposeful way to edit, repair and modify long chains of DNA via messenger RNA as well as perform a host of other functions we are only beginning to understand. Moreover, amino acids have to be put together in special ways to produce other vital components of life such as histones (which have recently proved crucial in epigenetics, because they help govern a gene's expression of protein) and cytochrome-c (used to transport electrons around the cell). Again, each arrangement is exceedingly improbable. If the positions of the amino acids in the enzymes, histones or cytochrome-c  are wrong the system becomes non-viable. (The building block analogy breaks down: normally the brick of a building can be in any position, while the particular amino acid has to be in a specific life-conferring position within the enzyme.)

Using their mathematical prowess they calculate that the probability of the amino acids forming the enzymes alone is one chance in 10 to-the-power-of-40,000 (i.e. 1 with 40,000 zeros – taking up several chapters of a book). To express the probability of the whole cell forming by chance would take volumes of books to write out the zeros involved. There are ‘only’ about 10-to-the-power-of-80 elementary particles in the entire observable universe, which is many, many orders of magnitude less.

The authors compare the probability to that of over 10,000 spectators arriving at a match in a particular pre-specified and significant order (not any old order). It would take 10-to-the-power-of-40,000 games for this to happen by chance (assuming it would happen at all). If the games were held weekly, say, it would take immeasurably longer than the age of the universe (13.3 billion years). This leaves out consideration of the other components of a living cell, all of them essential. For this degree of organisation to arise by chance is not credible. It would have to be guided in some way. The claim of evolution by random processes is described by the authors as ‘an uneasy combination of wishful thinking and dogma’.  (These calculations have not to my knowledge been improved upon since the book was published. Please correct me if you know otherwise.)

Since 1988 attempts have been made to simulate simpler self replicators, which conceivably could evolve into more complex ones, via software; but they all require human intelligence: the operating system and hardware to run the simulation has to be designed in the first place and the simplest self-replicating software models have to be carefully designed. How such systems could organise themselves by natural selection into the observed fossilised living organisms of over 3.5 billions years ago is a question for a magician, not a scientist. All systems in nature consist not of simpler viable, self-standing systems put together: each component system is useless without the rest. It is all or nothing.

The authors of Cosmic Life Force were far from religious (in fact my understanding was that Hoyle was an agnostic or atheist) but their book concludes with these words:

'The general belief that is common to all religions is that the universe, particularly the world of life, was created by a being of incomprehensibly magnified human-type intelligence....the overwhelming majority of humans would have instinctively adopted this point of view in some form, totally and without reservation. In view of the thesis of this book, it would seem to be almost in the nature of our genes to be able to evolve a consciousness of precisely this kind, almost as if we are creatures destined to perceive the truth relating to our origins in an instinctive way.'

Hoyle thought the universe was infinite and eternal, so he could ‘explain’ how life came about somewhere somehow in the universe by chance then got transported here by chance. Then came the Big Bang theory, which overturned his view of the cosmos: it is far from infinite and eternal and in my view such concepts are philosophically and mathematically untenable, being meaningful only in poetic terms (see links below). Therefore the big question stands. From where did life and the cosmos come?

See also
Infinity, eternity and cosmology
Eternity and thermodynamics

author, 2077 AD
reach me at

Friday, 15 June 2012

Intelligent design in science: fear not

I remember reading to my little daughter a children’s story based on Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. It was about wars between two lots of people who had different ideas on how an egg’s shell should be cracked: the Small Enders and the Big Enders. There was another war over what kind of shoes to wear, between the High Heelers and the Low Heelers. We both laughed out loud.

Rereading a book by the astrophysicists Fred Hoyle and Chandra Wickramasinghe Cosmic Life-Force (1988) I was reminded of a real, but equally futile  conflict which has been going on in western societies since the nineteenth century, though thankfully without violence.

In the book, which predicts the importance of viruses in DNA and the recent discovery of organic matter in space and around stars, they describe concisely how those who believed that God created the universe came to be regarded first as wrong and later as a threat to biology. Hoyle laments the narrow, doctrinaire and unscientific mindset of evolutionary biologists, not for religious reasons but because they won't accept even the possibility that life may have originated in outer space and been transported here, possibly being propelled across interstellar space by light pressure (panspermia). Instead they cling to absurd ideas of chemicals being juggled about in terrestrial primeval soups to form living systems against all mathematical odds in a blink of evolutionary time.

In the 19th century there was a socioscientific movement which sought to undermine the authority of the church because fundamentalists within it failed to recognise that evolution had occurred, treating Genesis in the Holy Bible as a literal, scientific account of creation, rather than a divine poem . This caused a furious attempt by certain evolutionary biologists to team up with sceptical biblical text scholars to debunk Christianity, tarring the whole Christian world-view with the same brush and seeking, with spectacular failure, to question the Resurrection itself.

The fundamentalist young earth Creationists, i.e. those who believed the universe was made less than 10,000 years ago, are today especially vocal and organised in the southern states of the USA. This is unfortunate not only because, in my view, it tends to devalue the wonder of God’s Creation but because it seems to have forced evolutionary biologists wedded to the idea of everything being a result of chance plus the laws of physics to fall into a trap. They have become paranoid about admitting that because the universe looks and behaves purposefully and as though it is designed, it may actually be designed. Shock horror. It would imply a Creator.

Why do those who think that humans are just animals, the product of a series of evolutionary accidents, fear not only young Earth creationists, but Intelligent Design scientists? The ID scientist accepts the standard Big Bang theory, which assumes the universe was created 13.7 billion years ago and fully support scientific investigation as a way of showing how our Creator is revealed in nature – everything from elementary particles to galactic clusters and living systems. Some even believe in the standard, neo-Darwinist evolutionary paradigm as describing how God brought about life on earth.

 ID is totally compatible with the observations of biology and indeed those scientists who believe in the teleological nature of our world are more likely to come up with powerful concepts on how it works than those who attribute everything to chance plus the laws of physics. In a sense it is  reverse engineering - stripping off layer after layer to see how the system works, but knowing there will always be another layer of mystery. ID was the standard philosophy among scientists throughout the Enlightenment. Einstein and Newton were both believers in ID. There is no God of the gaps. The belief comes from the wonder at the works of the Divine Artist.

When a new scientific observation is made which is not compatible with current models (e.g. a new elementary particle which does not fit into any existing explanatory scheme) there are three possible ways of dealing with it:

1. Revise the scheme


2. Assume God is the only explanation needed


3. Assume chance is the only explanation needed


The ID scientist is in fact more likely to adopt the first approach than one who does not accept that the universe is in any way designed, as a step towards building up a hierarchical model reflecting the true nature of the Creation. In fact outside the field of biology even a young Earth creationist scientist would do so, whereas a conventional evolutionary biologist would adopt the third approach when he encounters a currently inexplicable phenomenon within the life sciences. It is also a sad reflection on modern cosmology that some theorists are so fearful that there may indeed be a Creator that they resort to unscientific metaphysical unprovable models which eliminate the experimentally supported Big Bang, with its obvious implications for a Creation event.

I too fear the Creator but not because of the implications for scientific methodology or progress. My fear is a kind of awe at the majesty, power and mystery of God and the nature of the reality which God holds in being. The same applies for many Christians who work in or follow science.

In which chance is the new God of the gaps and extremely dangerous to science.

The teleological argument for the existence of God


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Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Evolutionary theory: the coming quantum jump?

After decades of being constrained by a neo-Darwinist ultra-reductionist mindset it is refreshing to see signs of new horizons opening up. Here are five developments that I, as a layman, have observed recently:

Kin selection under attack

Edward Wilson has rejected kin selection and the associated ‘selfish gene’ hypothesis as an explanation of evolution and instead proposes group selection in his latest book The Social Conquest of Earth. Formerly, Wilson was a supporter of kin selection and it is not surprising he should incur the wrath of Richard Dawkins and a hundred or so other evolutionary biologists. I suspect that Wilson’s group selection theory, while a significant improvement, will leave many unanswered questions about the extraordinary evolution of life on this planet: but what matters to me most is that we may at last be getting some fresh thinking and deeper worldview in a blinkered biological establishment. See also

The five-fold threat to science.
 Virus-driven evolution

Darwin’s original view was that evolution occurred by a gradual accumulation of beneficial traits culminating in new species as the best traits were preferred by natural selection, since only the fittest would survive. Darwin himself, and more so Wallace, the co-discoverer of evolution, had strong doubts about this. The fossil record soon showed it to be wrong – new species arrive suddenly, not gradually. Moreover, the whole body plan and life system of a new species is totally different from any existing species, and cannot be explained by the occurrence of random mutations, since random mutations add nothing to the information content of a genome. All they can do is switch on or off a few genes which are already in the genome.

There is now a wealth of evidence to show that it is viruses, not random mutations, which drive evolution and that these transfer beneficial traits from one species to another by incorporating themselves in the germ-line, i.e. egg or sperm cells, of a different species. Moreover, new species do not arise by modified descent in a tree of life. The whole process is, of course, barely understood but we at least know that evolution is best portrayed graphically as being more a web than a tree.

Viral-type DNA has recently been found to account for a substantial proportion of an organism’s genome – much more than the genes which code for protein expression (1.5%). This is at least partially derived from outside the organism and from its ancestors.


What primarily alters the characteristics of an organism is which genes are switched on, in which way and at what time. They don’t do this switching on and off themselves. It is determined and initiated by proteins and enzymes active within the cell and these are in turn affected by the environment, both within the organism and outside it, as well as food and drugs taken in by the organism and by previous generations.  The study of these extra-genetic processes is called epigenetics and it is a burgeoning field. It will, I suspect, have major implications for the mechanism of evolution and since much of the activity involved occurs within the brain there is no telling where the research could lead.

It is conceivable that our body-mind system and behaviour could all be affected by previous generations or have an effect on future ones. The epigenetics revolution by Nessa Carey points out that this could have major implications for drug R&D if the potential effects on future generations have to be taken into account.


The number of bacteria, fungi and other micro-organisms in your body is 10x greater than the number of body cells (i.e. hundreds rather than tens of trillions) and the importance of this in the functioning of the body is becoming increasingly recognised.  Could bacteria, too, have implications for evolution, given that our current understanding of the process is barely scraping the surface?

Communication between organisms

There is increasing evidence of chemicals and information being meaningfully transferred between trees in a forest, even between different species, via their root networks. Transfers of this type may well happen for other forms of plant life and also between mobile life forms in ways we cannot envisage.

Quantum biology

The incredible degree of organisation and purpose in the microscopic processes of life (e.g. editing and transfer of protein molecules between DNA segments) could originate from outside the measurable world, i.e. at the quantum level, and I seem to have seen suggestions of this somewhere, although this may just be  speculation on my part. I know definitely that quantum phenomena are being invoked in attempts to explain bird migration. There is also the fact of quantum entanglement which shows interaction of quantum systems independently of distance: where this could lead in evolutionary theory is beyond imagination.

I am looking at these developments as an outsider ignorant of all the eddies, cross currents  and fine points of discovery but I am hoping that science magazines, popular books and documentaries on biology will become more interesting, exciting and inspiring as the paradigm changes from attributing every miracle of nature, including human beings, to an evolutionary accident and facing up  to the strangeness and wonder of our existence.


author, 2077 AD (being revised)