Earwax Discovery Gives New Hearing to the Case for Intelligent Design

earwaxdiscoverygivesnew

BY FAZALE RANA – FEBRUARY 22, 2017

If you are like most people, you probably haven’t devoted much thought to earwax, unless it relates to the safest way to clean it out of your ears.

But earwax is worth thinking about, because it is a remarkable substance with extraordinary properties, as recent work by engineers from Georgia Institute of Technology (GIT) attests.1 In fact, the GIT researchers think that they can use their new insight about earwax to develop specialized filters for electronic devices that must perform in dusty environments.

By using earwax as an inspiration for new technology, these researchers have unwittingly provided more evidence for intelligent design, while at the same time raising a powerful challenge to the evolutionary explanation for the history and the design of life.

What Is Earwax?

This substance is an eclectic mixture of fatty acids, fatty alcohols, cholesterol, and squalene formed from secretions of the sebaceous and the ceruminous glands that line the outer portion of the ear canal. Earwax also consists of shed epithelial cells and hair.

Earwax is produced by all mammals, including humans. Two different types of earwax are found in humans, referred to as wet and dry. Honey brown in color, wet earwax contains a higher concentration of lipids and pigments than dry earwax. A single genetic change converts wet earwax (which is the genetically dominant form) into dry earwax (the genetically recessive form), which is gray and flaky.

The type of earwax a person has reflects their ancestry, with people of African and European descent having the wet variety and Asian and Native American people groups having dry earwax. Anthropologists have noted a correlation between earwax type and body odor. People with wet earwax tend to be more odiferous than people with dry earwax. Anthropologists think this correlation reflects sweat production levels, with people with wet earwax sweating more profusely than people with dry earwax. Presumably, the mutation which alters the color and consistency of the earwax also impacts sweat production. Anthropologists think that reduced sweating may have offered an advantage to Asian peoples and Native Americans, and consequently, dry earwax became fixed within these populations.

What Is the Function of Earwax?

Earwax serves several functions. One is protecting the inner ear from water, dust particles, and microorganisms. Even though earwax is a solid substance, it allows air to flow through it to the inner ear. Yet, the high fat content of earwax makes it an ideal water repellent, keeping water away from the inner ear. The hair fibers in earwax serve a useful function, forming a meshwork that traps dust particles. And the acidic pH of earwax and the lysosomes from the cellular debris associated with it impart this waxy secretion with antibacterial and antifungal properties.

The fatty materials associated with earwax also help lubricate the skin of the inner ear canal as the earwax moves toward the outer ear. Earwax motion occurs via a conveyor action set up, in part, by the migration of epithelial cells toward the outer ear. These migrating cells, which move at about the same rate as fingernails grow, carry the earwax along with them. Jaw motion also helps with the earwax movement.

By comparing earwax from several animals and by video recording earwax in human ear canals, the GIT researchers discovered that earwax has special properties that make it a non-Newtonian fluid. It is solid at rest, but flows when under pressure. Apparently, the pressure exerted on the earwax from jaw movements helps it to flow toward the outer ear. This movement serves as a cleaning mechanism, carrying the debris picked up by the earwax toward the outer ear. Interestingly, the particles picked up by the earwax alter its consistency, from a waxy material, to a flaky solid that readily crumbles, making it easier to clear the outer ear, while making room for newer, cleaner earwax.

New Technology Inspired by Earwax

The GIT engineers recognized that, based on its physical properties, earwax could serve as an inspiration for the design of new types of filters that could protect electronics from water and dusty environments. With a bit of imagination, it is possible to conceive of ways to take advantage of shear-thinning behavior to design filters that could be readily replaced with cleaner ones, once they have trapped their limit of dust particles.

Biomimetics, Bioinspiration, and the Case for Intelligent Design

It has become rather commonplace for engineers to employ insights from biology to solve engineering problems and to inspire the invention of new technologies. This activity falls under the domain of two relatively new and exciting areas of engineering known as biomimetics and bioinspiration. As the names imply, biomimetics involves direct copying (or mimicry) of designs from biology, whereas bioinspiration relies on insights from biology to guide the engineering enterprise.

From my perspective, the use of biological designs to guide engineering efforts seems fundamentally at odds with evolutionary theory. Generally, evolutionary biologists view biological systems as the products of an unguided, historically contingent process that co-opts preexisting systems to cobble together new ones. Evolutionary mechanisms can optimize these systems, but they are still kludges, in essence.

Given the unguided nature of evolutionary mechanisms, does it make sense for engineers to rely on biological systems to solve problems and inspire new technologies? Is it in alignment with evolutionary beliefs to build an entire subdiscipline of engineering upon mimicking biological designs? I would argue that these engineering subdisciplines do not fit with the evolutionary paradigm. On the other hand, biomimetics and bioinspiration naturally flow out of a creation model approach to biology. Using designs in nature to inspire engineering only makes sense if these designs arose from an intelligent Mind.

Resources

Engineers’ Muse: The Design of Biochemical Systems” by Fazale Rana (article)
Beetles Inspire an Engineering Breakthrough” by Fazale Rana (article)

Endnotes

  1. Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology, “The Technological Potential of Earwax,” Science News(blog), ScienceDaily, January 6, 2017, www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/01/17016092506.htm.
Reprinted with permission by the author
Original article at:
https://www.reasons.org/explore/blogs/the-cells-design/read/the-cells-design/2017/02/22/earwax-discovery-gives-new-hearing-to-the-case-for-intelligent-design

Recent Insights into Morning Sickness Bring Up New Evidence for Design

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BY FAZALE RANA – FEBRUARY 15, 2017

“A woman giving birth to a child has pain because her time has come; but when her baby is born she forgets the anguish because of her joy that a child is born into the world.”
–John 16:21
There is no end to a mother’s love. Most willingly sacrifice and even suffer for their children’s sake. And for many women, this suffering starts in the early days of their pregnancies.

Somewhere between 50% to 70% of women experience morning sickness—nausea, vomiting, and disgust toward certain foods—beginning near the onset of their pregnancies, and continuing for 2 to 3 months into the second trimester.

Interestingly, no other mammal experiences morning sickness. It is a uniquely human trait. This has prompted anthropologists and biomedical scientists to ask, why does morning sickness only occur in humans?

What Causes Morning Sickness?

As Christians, it might be tempting to view morning sickness as part of the curse—the increased pain in childbirth—described in Genesis 3:16–17.

Many anthropologists think that it is an epiphenomenon—a nonfunctional byproduct of humanity’s evolutionary origin. These scientists argue that morning sickness results from the genetic incompatibility between the mother and fetus that leads to a conflict for resources, causing the mother to become ill.

But, in recent years, scientists have identified another explanation for morning sickness, dubbed the prophylaxis hypothesis. They view nausea, vomiting, and disgust toward certain foods as a protective mechanism that keeps both mother and fetus healthy during the initial critical phase of embryonic development.

Recent work provides new support for this hypothesis,1 and, along with it, gives added insight to the biblical idea that as human beings we are fearfully and wonderfully made (Psalm 139:14). Support for the prophylaxis hypothesis also has pro-life implications.

What Is the Purpose of Morning Sickness?

The prophylaxis hypothesis gains support from several observations. First, there are correlations between morning sickness and both reduced incidences of miscarriages and elevated birth weights.

As it turns out, only certain foods trigger nausea and vomiting and serve as the objects of disgust during the first trimester of pregnancy: namely, meats, poultry, eggs, strongly flavored vegetables, and some fruit. These foods are the most likely to harbor pathogens and dietary toxins that can interfere with embryological development (teratogens). Along these lines, it is interesting that the incidence of morning sickness varies from culture to culture, most likely because of dietary differences.

The timing of morning sickness also supports the prophylaxis hypothesis. During the first trimester, the mother’s immune system is suppressed. The genetic differences between mother and fetus makes this suppression necessary. Because the fetus is only 50% genetically identical to the mother, her body treats the fetus as foreign and would otherwise attack it, if it wasn’t for the suppression of her immune system.

Immunosuppression is maximal during the first trimester, leaving both the mother and fetus vulnerable to infection. By the second trimester, the mother’s immunosuppression becomes localized to the interface between the mother and fetus. It is during this time that the developing child’s immune system begins to form. The fetus also enjoys protection from the mother’s antibodies that are transferred to the fetus via the placenta.

The first trimester is also critical because this is when organ development begins in the fetus. At this juncture in development, the fetus is highly vulnerable to infectious agents and reproductive toxins found in fruits and vegetables.

There is also another role that morning sickness and disgust toward certain foods play in the early stages of pregnancy: calorie restriction for the mother. It is counterintuitive, but limiting the caloric intake benefits the pregnancy by inhibiting tissue synthesis in the mother. When calories are few, anabolic pathways shut down. This allows nutrients to be devoted to placental formation.

Why Does Morning Sickness Only Occur in Humans?

Researchers think that morning sickness in humans stems from our wide-ranging diet. Most mammals have highly specialized diets. Because of this, their immune systems can readily target the pathogens most likely to be found in the foods they eat. They can also make use of specialized enzymes to detoxify the teratogens most likely to be found in the foods they eat. This type of specialized protection isn’t feasible in humans, in fact, it might not even be possible at all, because our diets are so wide-ranging—varying from region to region around the world. Unlike most mammal species, humans literally occupy every corner of the planet. And this capability requires us to eat all sorts of foods. Given our highly varied diet, the most efficient and effective way to protect the mother and fetus during the first trimester of pregnancy is through nausea, vomiting, and disgust toward potentially harmful foods—unpleasant as these experiences might be.

Morning Sickness as Evidence for the Christian Faith

Though some biologists have argued that morning sickness is an epiphenomenon that emerged as the byproduct of human evolution, the data indicates otherwise. Morning sickness and disgust toward certain foods plays a critical function in an healthy pregnancy by protecting both the mother and the developing child. As a Christian, I see morning sickness as one more elegantly designed facet of human pregnancy.

I also see it as affirming key passages of Scripture. Instead of seeing morning sickness as support for Genesis 3:16–17, I view it as deepening the meaning of passages in Psalm 139describing each of us as being fearfully and wonderfully made. This latest insight about the benefit of morning sickness also expands my perspective of the idea from Psalm 139 that God has knit each of us together in our mother’s womb.

I also see this insight relating to the command God gave us in Genesis 1 to multiply and fill the earth. To do so would require that we would be able to thrive in a wide range of habitats, demanding that we are capable of consuming a highly varied diet. And of course, this is where morning sickness plays a vital role. For humans to increase in number, while we fill the world, requires a prophylactic mechanism (such as morning sickness) to ensure healthy pregnancies.

On a side note: The prophylaxis hypothesis also points to human exceptionalism. In contrast to our the highly varied diets, Neanderthals consumed a much more limited range of food. In fact, these differences in dietary practices likely reflect differences in the cognitive capacities of modern humans and Neanderthals. It is no accident that Neanderthals had a limited biogeographical distribution, confined to Europe, Western Asia, and the Middle East. In fact, Neanderthals’ limited diet may well have contributed to their extinction.

Pro-Life Implications

This work also has implications for the pro-life debate. I have often heard pro-choice advocates argue that abortion is not murder because the fetus is like a tumor. However, the latest insights into morning sickness undermine this position. This argument would gain validity if morning sickness was, indeed, an epiphenomenon, resulting from a tug-of-war between mother and fetus. But the data says otherwise. Even though the fetus is genetically distinct from the mother, the mother’s body is designed to do everything it can to protect the fetus, including develop morning sickness and disgust toward potentially harmful foods.

Though this latest understanding about morning sickness may make evolutionary biologists and pro-choice advocates sick, it spews forth new evidence for design. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist.)

Resources

What Are the Odds of You Being You?” by Matthew McClure (article)
Placenta Optimization Shows Creator’s Handiwork” by Fazale Rana (article)
Curvaceous Anatomy of Female Spine Reveals Ingenious Obstetric Design” by Virgil Robertson (article)
Does the Childbirth Process Represent Clumsy Evolution or Good Engineering?” by Fazale Rana (article)
The Female Brain: Pregnant with Design” by Fazale Rana (article)
Dietary Differences Separate Humans from Neanderthals” by Fazale Rana (article)

Endnotes

  1. Rachel R. Huxley, “Nausea and Vomiting in Early Pregnancy: Its Role in Placental Development,” Obstetrics and Gynecology 95 (May 2000): 779–82, doi:10.1016/S0029-7844(99)00662-6; Daniel M. T. Fessler, Serena J. Eng, and C. David Navarrete, “Elevated Disgust Sensitivity in the First Trimester of Pregnancy: Evidence Supporting the Compensatory Prophylaxis Hypothesis,” Evolution and Human Behavior 26 (July 2005): 344–51, doi:10.1016/j.evolhumbehav.2004.12.001; Samuel M. Flaxman and Paul W. Sherman, “Morning Sickness: Adaptive Cause or Nonadaptive Consequence of Embryo Viability?” The American Naturalist 172 (July 2008): 54–62, doi:10.1086/588081.
Reprinted with permission by the author
Original article at:
https://www.reasons.org/explore/blogs/the-cells-design/read/the-cells-design/2017/02/15/recent-insights-into-morning-sickness-bring-up-new-evidence-for-design

Were Neanderthals People, Too? A Response to Jon Mooallem

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BY FAZALE RANA – FEBRUARY 8, 2017

Recently, I conducted an informal survey through my Facebook page, asking my friends, “What do you think is the most significant scientific challenge to the Christian faith?”

The most consistent concern related to Neanderthals. Why did God create these creatures (and other hominids)? How do we make sense of human-Neanderthal interbreeding? What about Neanderthal behavior? Didn’t these creatures behave just like us?

These questions are understandable. And they are reinforced by popular science articles such as the piece by Jon Mooallem published recently (January 11, 2017) in the New York Times Magazine. In this piece, Mooallem interviews paleoanthropologist Clive Finlayson about his research at Gorham’s Cave (Gibraltar)—work that Finlayson claims provides evidence that Neanderthals possessed advanced cognitive abilities, just like modern humans—just like us.1

Finlayson’s team discovered hatch marks made in the bedrock of Gorham’s Cave. They age-date the markings to be more than 39,000 years old. The layer immediately above the bedrock dated between 30,000 and 38,000 years old and contained Neanderthal-produced artifacts, leading the team to conclude that these hominids made the markings, and the hatch marks represent some form of proto-art.2

In his piece, Mooallem cites other recent scientific claims that support Finlayson’s interpretation of Neanderthal behavioral capacity. Based on archaeological and fossil finds, some paleoanthropologists argue that these hominids: (1) buried their dead, (2) made specialized tools, (3) used ochre, (4) produced jewelry, and (5) even had language capacities.

This view of Neanderthals stands as a direct challenge to the view espoused by the RTB human origins model, specifically the notion of human exceptionalism and the biblical view that humans alone bear the image of God.

Mooallem argues that paleoanthropologists have been slow to acknowledge the sophisticated behavior of Neanderthals because of a bias that reflects the earliest views about these creatures—a view that regards these hominids as “unintelligent brutes.” Accordingly, this view has colored the way paleoanthropologists interpret archaeological finds associated with Neanderthals, keeping them from seeing the obvious: Neanderthals had sophisticated cognitive abilities. In fact, Mooallem accuses paleoanthropologists who continue to reject this new view of Neanderthals as being “modern human supremacists,” guilty of speciesism, born out of an “anti-Neanderthal prejudice.”

Mooallem offers a reason why this prejudice continues to persist among some paleoanthropologists. In part, it’s because of the limited data available to them from the archaeological record. In the absence of a robust data set, paleoanthropologists must rely on speculation fueled by preconceptions. Mooallem states,“

All sciences operate by trying to fit new data into existing theories. And this particular science, for which the ‘data’ has always consisted of scant and somewhat inscrutable bits of rock and fossil, often has to lean on those meta-narratives even more heavily. . . . Ultimately, a bottomless relativism can creep in: tenuous interpretations held up by webs of other interpretations, each strung from still more interpretations. Almost every archaeologist I interviewed complained that the field has become ‘overinterpreted’—that the ratio of physical evidence to speculation about that evidence is out of whack. Good stories can generate their own momentum.”3

Yet, as discussed in my book Who Was Adam? (and articles listed below in the Resources section), careful examination of the archaeological and fossil evidence reveals just how speculative the claims about Neanderthal “exceptionalism” are. Could it be that the claims of Neanderthal art and religion result from an overinterpreted archaeological record, and not the other way around?

In effect, Mooallem’s critique of the “modern human supremacists” cuts both ways. In light of the limited and incomplete data from the archaeological record, it could be inferred that paleoanthropologists who claim Neanderthals have sophisticated cognitive capacities, just like modern humans, have their own prejudices fueled by an “anti-modern human bias” and a speciesism all their own—a bias that seeks to undermine the uniqueness and exceptionalism of modern humans. And to do this they must make Neanderthals out to be just like us.

As to the question: Why did God create these creatures (and the other hominids)? That will have to wait for another post. So stay tuned…

Resources

Endnotes

  1. Jon Mooallem, “Neanderthals Were People, Too,” New York Times Magazine, January 11, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/11/magazine/neanderthals-were-people-too.html.
  2. Joaquín Rodríguez-Vidal et al., “A Rock Engraving Made by Neanderthals in Gibraltar,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, USA 111 (September 2014): 13301–6, doi:10.1073/pnas.1411529111.
  3. Mooallem, “Neanderthals Were People.”
Reprinted with permission by the author
Original article at:
https://reasons.org/explore/blogs/the-cells-design/read/the-cells-design/2017/02/08/were-neanderthals-people-too-a-response-to-jon-mooallem

Q&A: Why Would a Limitless Creator Face Trade-Offs in Biochemical Designs?

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BY FAZALE RANA – FEBRUARY 1, 2017

“Biologists must constantly keep in mind that what they see was not designed, but rather evolved.”
—Francis Crick, What Mad Pursuit
In my experience, no one denies the complexity and sophistication of biochemical systems, regardless of their philosophical or religious views. To put it another way, there is no debate. Biochemical systems have the indisputable appearance of design. The question at the center of the creation/evolution controversy relates to the source of the design. Is it the handiwork of a Creator? Or, is it the product of unguided, evolutionary processes? Is the design authentic? Or is it only apparent?

As a creationist, I regard the elegant designs of biochemical systems as evidence for a Creator’s role in bringing life into existence. Yet, many in the scientific community would disagree, maintaining that the design emerges through evolutionary processes. In support of this position, these detractors point to so-called “bad” biochemical designs and argue that if an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-good Creator produced biochemical systems, these systems should display perfection. On the other hand, less-than-optimal designs are precisely what one would expect if life resulted from an evolutionary history.

Are Bad Designs a Challenge to the Design Argument?

In my book The Cell’s Design, I offer a chapter-length rejoinder to this challenge, pointing out the following:

  • Often when life scientists interpret biochemical systems as poorly designed, their view is based on an incomplete understanding of the structure and function of these systems. Inevitably, as researchers develop new insight, these systems are revealed to be additional examples of the elegant designs, characteristic of biochemistry.

Junk DNA serves as the quintessential illustration of this point.

  • In some cases, biochemical systems labeled as flawed designs are suboptimal in reality. Their suboptimal nature is necessary for the overall system to optimally perform. Routinely, engineers intentionally suboptimize facets of the systems they design to achieve overall optimality. This practice is necessary for complex systems built to achieve multiple objectives. Inevitably, some of these objectives conflict with others. In other words, these systems face trade-offs. To manage the trade-offs, engineers must carefully suboptimize the performances of the systems’ components, again, so that the systems will result in overall optimal performances.

Some recently discovered examples of biochemical trade-offs include:

A Rejoinder

After recently posting the article I wrote on the trade-offs associated with glucose breakdown, my Facebook friend Riaz, a skeptic, offered this come back:

“There is no need for trade-offs if one has unlimited resources . . . not to mention being able to change [the] law[s] of physics and design/re-design the universe from scratch . . .”

Trade-Offs Are Inevitable

This is a reasonable question. Why would the Creator, described in the Bible, ever deal with trade-offs? But what if the God of the Bible did choose to produce a universe with fixed natural laws? If he did, trade-offs inevitably result. And, I contend, the elegance in which these trade-offs are managed in biochemical systems are nothing less than genius, befitting the God of the Bible.

A Follow-Up Question

What about Riaz’s second question? Why create a universe with unvarying natural laws, if that means suboptimal designs would necessarily result? If the Creator is infinite in power and extent, if the Creator is all-knowing and all-good, why would He confine himself so that He is forced to suboptimize even a single facet of His creation because of trade-offs?

Interesting questions, to be sure. From my perspective, there are at least three reasons why God created the universe with unvarying natural laws.

Constant Laws of Nature Reflect God’s Nature

A universe with constant natural laws reflects God’s character and nature as revealed in the Old and New Testaments. Scripture teaches that:

It is reasonable to think that the universe made by a God who does not waver would be governed by unvarying natural laws.

Along those lines, Psalm 50:6 tells us that the “heavens declare God’s righteousness.” From my vantage point, the righteousness revealed in the heavens would be most clearly manifested through the conformity of the heavenly bodies (and all of nature, for that matter) to constant laws.

An interesting interplay of these ideas is found in Jeremiah 33:25. Here, the Lord compares the certainty of the covenant He established with His people to the “established laws of heaven and earth.”1 To put it another way, if we ever wonder if God will keep his promises, all we need to do is look to the constancy of the laws of nature.

Constant Laws of Nature Are Necessary for Moral Accountability

This assertion may not seem obvious at first glance. But, careful consideration leads to the conclusion that apart from a universe with fixed laws governing nature, it is impossible to have moral laws. In his classic work Faith and Reason, the late philosopher Ron Nash writes:

“The existence of a lawlike and orderly creation is a necessary condition for a number of divine objectives. . . . it is also reasonable to believe that God placed these free moral agents in a universe exhibiting order. One can hardly act intentionally and responsibly in an unpredictable environment.”2

Ron Nash goes on to say:

“If the world were totally unpredictable, if we could never know from one moment to the next, what to expect from nature, both science and meaningful moral conduct would be impossible. While we often take the natural order for granted, this order and the predictability that accompanies it function as a necessary condition for free human action. . . . One reason people can be held accountable when they pull the trigger of a loaded gun is the predictability of what will follow such an action.”3

Constant Laws of Nature Permit Discoverability

Unchanging natural laws render the universe (and phenomena within its confines) intelligible. If the laws of nature changed from day-to-day—or at the Creator’s whim—it would be impossible to know anything about the world around us with any real confidence. In effect, science would be impossible. The orderliness of the universe leads to predictability, the most important condition for a rational investigation of the world.

Because the universe is intelligible, it is possible for human beings to take advantage of God’s provision for us, made available within the creation. As we study and develop an understanding of the laws of physics and chemistry, the composition of matter, and the nature of living systems, we can deploy that knowledge to benefit humanity—in fact, all life on Earth—through technology, agriculture, medicine, and conservation efforts. To put it in theological terms, the intelligibility of the universe allows us to unleash God’s providence for humanity as we come to understand the world around us.

Ultimately, I believe that God has designed the universe for discoverability because He wants us to see, understand, and appreciate His handiwork as a Creator, so through His creation we can know Him. Scripture teaches that we can glimpse God’s glory (Psalm 19:1), majesty (Psalm 8:1), and righteousness (Psalm 50:6) from nature. From the Old Testament, we learn that God’s eternal nature (Psalm 90:2) can be gleaned from the world around us. We can see God’s love, faithfulness, righteousness, and justice (Psalm 36:5–6) in creation. This powerful revelation of God’s character is only possible because the laws of nature are constant.

Scripture (Romans 1:20Job 12:7–9) also teaches that we can see evidence for God’s fingerprints as well—evidence for His existence. And toward that end, I maintain that we see God’s handiwork in the elegant way trade-offs are handled in biochemical systems.

Resources