A fresh look at the Creation “Science” Museum

I recently blogged on a visit to the creation science museum, located not far from my home in Cincinnati, Ohio. It is a creationist alternative to natural history museums. The creation museum attempts to provide scientific authenticity and respectability to the creationist view that the bible is literally true in every detail. That is, God created all life on earth a few thousand years ago. And, at least at first, we lived in happy vegetarian harmony alongside lions, tigers, and of course the Tyrannosaurus rex. Indeed, one of the first exhibits shows people mingling with the dinosaurs.

The previous blog stirred a hornet’s nest of comments and I thought it would be useful to summarize some of the most interesting points, and to raise a few new ones. For the moment let us focus on Noah’s ark and the flood. One of the largest exhibits in the Creation Museum is dedicated to the flood, and the owners are now building a life size replica of the ark. Creationists clearly do not back away from a literal interpretation of the biblical flood.

First, where did all the water come from? The water levels of the oceans had to rise many thousands of feet to cover all of the mountains. And rain just recycles water. Water that evaporated from one place is dropped at another place. Rain can cause local floods, but not global ones. Creationists counter that water also squirted from the ground (“fountains of the deep”). Let me say, that is a lot of squirting.

Second, how did all of those animals make it to the ark? Polar bears, kangaroos, Galapagos finches, rocky mountain lions, and so on. The Creation Museum explains that a few thousand years ago there might have been only one continent, which then split into the several that we see today. Well, we do know that continents drift, but their movements are measured in inches per year, not the miles per year that this explanation would require.

And why didn’t any of the dinosaurs make it to the ark? I thought the bible said that two of every kind were included on the ark. And if dinosaurs cohabited the planet with people in pre-flood times why don’t we read in early bible passages of the occasional T. rex ravaging of villages?

One reader also pointed out that all of the land plants would have been wiped out by the flood, which lasted about a year according to the Creation Museum, and biblical scholars http://www.amazines.com/Christianity/article_detail.cfm/990696?articleid=990696. Does this mean that Noah also carried seeds for all of the plants of the planet on the ark? And how were they collected?

Then there is this funny business of creationists believing in microevolution, but not macroevolution. The creation museum clearly states that one species can indeed evolve into multiple closely related species. This is required for the ark hypothesis to have a chance. The ark just didn’t have room for every single species of the planet to fit. So it is argued that the limited number of species that were saved by the ark then split into the incredible number of species that we see on the planet today. Unfortunately, for creationists, evolution is not that fast. A few thousand years is not even close to enough time to account for such diversification. Only in rare cases, where the driving force is human selection instead of natural selection, can speciation occur so rapidly. See my blog “Dogs prove evolution”.

And finally, and most importantly, there is the incredible moral dilemma of the flood. God knowingly, and with clear intent, killed every person on the planet, save a few. This must have included thousands of women with unborn babies in their bellies. God killed them. And think of the innocent children. It wasn’t their fault that things were going badly. They were just kids, having fun, playing their games, spending time with their friends, loving their parents. But God killed them. And think of all of the mothers of the planet, caring for their children, hoping for a brighter future, wanting the best for their kids. God killed them too.

God gave Moses the Ten Commandments to provide a moral compass.  These were the essential rules to live by. To live a good life one should obey these commandments.

Thou shall not kill.

If the flood story is true then it would seem to represent a rather embarrassing inconsistency.

About the Author: Steve Potter, PhD, is a Professor of Pediatrics, in the Division of Developmental Biology, at Children’s Hospital Medical Center in Cincinnati. He has authored Designer Genes: A New Era in the Evolution of Man, published by Random House 2010 http://www.amazon.com/Designer-Genes-New-Era-Evolution/dp/140006905X/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1310842010&sr=1-1. In addition he has written over one hundred science papers, and co-authored the third edition of the medical school textbook, Larsen’s Human Embryology.

Radical Cloning

There is a quiet revolution going on in the world of cloning. Very few have heard of it, but its potential power is astonishing. Imagine a radical new way to clone that can not only create exact carbon copies of adults, but also allows the generation of important genetic improvements. Another you, but smarter, healthier, and maybe a bit better looking.

The birth of Dolly the sheep fifteen years ago shocked the world. We learned it is possible to replace the genes of an egg with those from an adult, and in a few cases the egg would proceed to make a viable clone, like Dolly. And the debates began! Should we allow human cloning? Was this a useful new reproductive option for childless couples? Or was it a crime against nature? Would clones have a soul? Were we moving towards a Brave New World future, with armies of clones fighting our wars and working in our factories?

The gene replacement technology used to make Dolly, however, was severely flawed. Only about one in a hundred eggs with genes from an adult survives. This procedure clearly should not be applied to people. For every birth there would be 99 aborted monstrosities, and even the rare clones surviving to birth are not really normal when examined carefully.

But recently we’ve seen a perfect storm of incredible advances in biology that changes everything. It is now possible to take adult cells, from the skin for example, and to transform them into stem cells, which can then be converted into complete individuals. It works quite well for mice, and there is every reason to think it would also work for humans.

How is this cloning through stem cells accomplished? The breakthrough was Shinya Yamanaka’s discovery that it is possible to treat adult cells with a special gene expression cocktail that turns them into the functional equivalent of embryonic stem cells. Stem cells, as the name suggests, are able to branch in many different developmental directions, to give rise to heart, nerve, liver, or other cell types. In the world of medicine, this is like the ancient alchemist somehow succeeding in turning lead into gold. Stem cells offer great promise in the regeneration and repair of diseased or damaged organs. Historically, the most powerful stem cells – those able to give rise to all of the different cell types of the body – were made from embryos. Hence the ethical controversy, since it was necessary to kill human embryos to make embryonic stem cells.

Adult derived stem cells made by the Yamanaka procedure, however, are as powerful as those made from embryos. They too can give rise to all of the cell types of the body. Indeed, it is possible to take adult derived mouse stem cells, grown in a plastic dish in the laboratory, and to turn them into complete mice. The controversy over human embryonic stem cells should now be officially over because we can make equally potent stem cells from adults, without sacrificing embryos.

Stem cell cloning, however, opens a Pandora’s box of possibilities. It is much more efficient than the gene replacement approach used to make Dolly. In addition, stem cells are extremely genetically malleable. Nobel prize winning genetic engineering technology works very well with them. It is therefore now feasible to clone not only exact copies, but also improved versions of people.

With the technical objections rapidly fading, it is now time to revisit the ethical issues of cloning. First, is it morally wrong to have multiple people with the same, or nearly the same, genes? Of course identical twins, triplets, quadruplets, and so on have long existed as a product of nature. But there are some differences between clones and twins. Twins are the same age, while a clone would be younger than its single parent. In addition, there is a limit on the number of genetically identical individuals that can be made by natural reproduction, but in theory a hundred or more clones could be made from one person. It makes most of us uncomfortable to think that a wealthy person could now make many young copies of him or herself.

Another issue is procreation without sex. Some people find the laboratory creation of human offspring repugnant, thinking it degrades and cheapens the process of reproduction. Are we heading towards a shopping catalog selection of our children? Nevertheless, the current methods of in vitro fertilization involve mixing eggs and sperm in the test tube, thereby creating human embryos for otherwise infertile couples. About one percent of all births in the U.S. are now the result of in vitro fertilization. Cloning technology is similar in principle, but using only one parent to make embryos instead of two. Does that difference make it morally wrong?

Our science and technology are marching forward at an ever accelerating pace. The topic could not be more important. We are talking about the nature of our children, and in the long run, our species. Genetic enhancement could lead to improved intelligence, and exceptionally long and healthy lives. Or a hellish dystopia. We must move into the future with great care.

About the Author: Steve Potter, PhD, is a Professor of Pediatrics, in the Division of Developmental Biology, at Children’s Hospital Medical Center in Cincinnati. He has authored Designer Genes: A New Era in the Evolution of Man, published by Random House 2010 http://www.amazon.com/Designer-Genes-New-Era-Evolution/dp/140006905X/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1310842010&sr=1-1. In addition he has written over one hundred science papers, and co-authored the third edition of the medical school textbook, Larsen’s Human Embryology.

How to fight cow farts and save the world

We all know about global warming, and we all want to save the planet. The average person on the planet is responsible for about four tons of carbon dioxide emissions per year, for a total of about 25 gigatons (thousand billion tons) (http://timeforchange.org/CO2-emissions-by-country). Seems like a lot.

Surprisingly, however, although it gets almost all of the press, maybe carbon dioxide emissions aren’t the biggest problem. Consider the cow, which burps and farts huge quantities of methane, a much more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.

A United Nations report concluded that “the livestock sector generates more greenhouse gas emissions as measured in carbon dioxide equivalent than transport.” (http://change.nature.org/2011/04/01/no-fooling-cow-burps-and-farts-contribute-to-climate-change/) Yes, eating those MacBurgers might be worse for the environment than driving that SUV. As Robin says to Batman, “Holy Cow!”

To better understand the problem we have to dig deep into the bowels of the subject. Amazingly, it turns out that people have about ten times more bacterial cells than human cells. What?? Yes, it is true (http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/06/080603085914.htm). Bacterial cells are very small, and our guts are crammed full of them. So, in the end, each of us actually has far more bacterial cells than people cells. The same sort of ratio is also true for cows. Like us, they are loaded with bacteria.

And therein lies the rub. The bacteria are very useful for the cows, converting otherwise worthless plant material into functional food. Unfortunately this fermentation process creates methane. A quick look at the fart chart shows that California tops the list, producing about 350,000 tons of methane a year, with Wisconsin coming in at number two (http://milk.procon.org/view.resource.php?resourceID=001154#methodology).

And how can we solve this problem? Researchers in Argentina have connected gas bags to cows, finding that each one produces around a thousand liters a day http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-1033656/Reducing-cow-burping-key-tackling-climate-change.html. If we could only harvest this energy source to power our cities! Alas, this seems unlikely.

Some studies have suggested that a change of diet could help. Less Mexican and more Beano? Or, maybe just more alfalfa and clover.

Of course one option would be for us all to go vegan. Just stop eating cows and drinking their milk. There are some reasons to think this might be the best route. Cows are mammals like us, and have almost the same set of genes. From an evolutionary perspective eating a cow is sort of like eating your cousin. But, darn it, they taste so good!

Thank heaven there has recently been a major breakthrough in cow fart research. It turns out that kangaroos are relatively methane free. So maybe we should kill the cows and switch to roos. But there could be some nasty consequences. Imagine enormous numbers of kangaroos jumping over fences, crashing into cars, and creating massive carnage. No, there must be a better way.

It turns out that marsupials have different bacteria in their guts, that produce succinate as a by product instead of methane (http://news.sciencemag.org/sciencenow/2011/06/scienceshot-why-wallabies-dont.html?etoc&elq=5629ef59290a47bd9fa324c28c66377c). So all we need to do is convert the population of bacteria in the cow gut over to the kangaroo type. We need a cow probiotic. The easiest way to do this would seem to be to collect a lot of kangaroo poop and spread it on the cow hay and see what happens.

In order to conduct these vital experiments I’m planning a roo poop collecting expedition to Australia. If you’d like to contribute, and thereby save the world, please mail me a check. Or, better yet, cash.

About the Author: Steve Potter, PhD, is a Professor of Pediatrics, in the Division of Developmental Biology, at Children’s Hospital Medical Center in Cincinnati. He has authored Designer Genes: A New Era in the Evolution of Man, published by Random House 2010 http://www.amazon.com/Designer-Genes-New-Era-Evolution/dp/140006905X/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1310842010&sr=1-1. In addition he has written over one hundred science papers, and co-authored the third edition of the medical school textbook, Larsen’s Human Embryology.