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Saturday, June 24, 2006

My new book with neuroscientist Mario Beauregard: Some laughs along the way

I have recently dragged myself up the bank and shaken myself off, after the hardest slog of my life, and now I feel like talking about one or two things. I wrote this column for an excellent interdenomintional Christian paper, ChristianWeek, to which you should subscribe if you are interested in the Christian community in Canada. It was written after a leave of absence while co-writing The Spiritual Brain :

Faith@Science: The God gene? Spot? Circuit? Okay, maybe a Module?

by Denyse O'Leary

Well, it's great to be back on my old coffee stool. As kind regular readers may recall, I was away coauthoring a book on the neuroscience evidence for the spiritual nature of the human, with Montreal neuroscientist Mario Beauregard. Some may wonder what that is all about, so I should perhaps say a bit about it.

If you listen to the popular science media, scientists have discovered that there is no self, no soul, no spirit and no free will. The mind itself is an illusion. Neuroscientists have also discovered that there is a God spot, God circuit, God gene, or God module in the brain. They have also discovered that, by putting on a special helmet, you can have mystical visions, and that Darwinian evolution selected cavemen who believed in religion. That is why you can't help but believe (even though, for as yet undetermined reasons, the theorist himself and his buddies apparently can help it quite easily).

Not only that, but religion can be traced to defects in the temporal lobe. Paul the Apostle, Joan of Arc, Teresa of Avila, and Thérèse of Lisieux were all epileptics, and that explains their careers. Every other month, a great new discovery of this type is said to revolutionize the relationship between science and religion. Mainly by showing that there is nothing much to religion.

You think it's all nonsense, do you? Or do you worry in your heart of hearts that one or another of these concoctions might be true? Well, I spent a year examining all of them in detail (or anyway, as many as we could spot flying above the radar). It was the hardest year of my life, considering the piles of stuff I had to get through—dating from 1902 through 2006—and discovered that … it is indeed all nonsense.

I came away astonished by the gullibility of the popular science media in this area. There were times I howled with laughter. The only explanation for the tendency to offer credibility to any "we've found God in the genes/brain" announcement, however poorly supported, is reflexive materialism.

In a way, it makes sense. If we start out with the axiom that materialism is true and that therefore the explanation for religious or philosophical belief must be found in Darwinian evolution, we have only two choices: Either evolution selected people who believe in religion because it confers a survival advantage or it permitted their survival even though it does not confer a survival advantage. Either way, we would be predisposed to expect that research will sooner or later—probably sooner—uncover the evidence. As a result, if we are journalists, we may stampede to cover the flimsiest nonsense as if it were an important discovery. And then on to the next nonsense.

Meanwhile, there is good evidence for the independent existence of a mind, apart from the brain. Based on evidence, it is also reasonable to believe that people who have deep religious experiences contact something beyond themselves. That, of course, is the core of the book, which will be published in spring 2007. I'll say more closer to the time.

By the way, in my last column (January 2006), I wrote about the Catholic Church taking on Darwinism. Recently, Fr. Martin Hilbert of the Toronto Oratory wrote an excellent article in Touchstone Magazine (available online at Touchstonemag) setting out the details of how and why that happened. It has come to my attention that the Vatican is now selling holy cards in many languages at souvenir stands throughout Rome, featuring a key portion from Benedict XVI's first homily, including the sentence: "We are not some casual and meaningless product of evolution. Each of us is a thought of God." Hundreds of thousands of visitors take them home. Anyone who thinks that the intelligent design controversy is merely a dismissible product of American fundamentalism is whistling down the wind.

Forget the comfortable encomiums that we so often hear from Christian academics that there is "no conflict between faith and science." How weary I used to get listening to that! Of course there is no conflict between faith and science. But my research for By Design or by Chance? showed clearly that there is an irreconcilable conflict between Christianity and Darwinism. And this current book has deepened my awareness. Stay tuned.

If you like this blog, check out my book on the intelligent design controversy, By Design or by Chance?. You can read excerpts as well.

(Note: CW doesn't put my columns up on the Web.)
If you like this blog, check out my book on the intelligent design controversy, By Design or by Chance?. You can read excerpts as well.

The unfeeling reptilian brain: Don't mess with its babies

by Denyse O’Leary

(Note: I must write an index this weekend (for someone else’s book), and so I am posting some items I wrote for another blog that are relevant to the intelligent design controversy.)

Recently, while doing research for a book on human neuroscience issues, I ran into a really neat explanation of the brain, as follows:

Neurologist Paul MacLean first proposed in 1970 that the human brain has three parts, each one of which grew on top of the other, over evolutionary time:

- the reptilian brain (includes the brain stem and cerebellum)
- the limbic brain, associated with mammals, is responsible for emotions. It contains such structures as the amygdala and the hippocampus.
- the neocortex is best developed in primates and is associated with abstract thought, imagination, consciousness, and language.

This "three brains" hypothesis sounds neat — three nested brains — but it does leave the reptile without the ability to feel emotions other than aggression or perhaps fear.

Indeed, Maclean himself liked to say that "it is very difficult to imagine a lonelier and more emotionally empty being than a crocodile." For example, two behaviors that he did not think crocodilians could manage were care for offspring and playfulness.

Indeed, the vacant reptilian brain has even achieved a minor pop psychology status in business consulting as the last word in lack of creativity or caring.

One really good thing about the "three brains" hypothesis is that it can be tested. That's a key sign of a good hypothesis in science. Does the evidence reasonably show that crocodilians do not show emotions other than fear or aggression?

Doc Gater, who has wrestled and tagged hundreds of Mississippi alligators for conservation purposes, told me recently how he catches alligators in order to tag them:

Using a headlight on my head, I can see the eye shine of an alligator several hundred meters on a dark night. I then call the alligator for a closer look by mimicking the alarm call of a baby alligator and make splashing sounds with my hand in the water. The sound is irresistible and the alligator swims toward the boat. If I am working in a new area I can usually call about 80% of the alligators close enough for their heads to hit the boat.

When I call alligators by making the grunting call of a young alligator it attracts alligators of all sizes. It is unclear if they are simply curious or if they will defend the young. It is akin to the alarm call a newborn calf will make where the entire herd will indeed come and defend the young one.

So whether they are trying to be helpful or are merely curious, the alligators do not seem to realize that they are not supposed to care ...

Smith also told me, regarding the mother alligator's concern for her brood and the young alligators' awareness of each other:
Most mother alligators will viciously defend the nest containing incubating eggs and she has a very small home range (less than a third of an acre) during the 9-12 week incubation period. We know there is maternal care because the mother alligator MUST dig out the hatchlings and will often carry them to the water in her mouth. Also the grunting sound they make before hatching helps them all to hatch together and get the mother's attention. In fact if one puts less well developed eggs in a nest they too will hatch with the others, but with their yoke sacks still outside their bodies and will soon die. The young stay close to the mother and usually hibernate with the mother the first year or two. It remains unknown if the female alligator will actively defend the young after hatching, but her presence is certainly deterrence.

Alligators also seem to have something like a love life. According to gator expert Lindsey Hord, quoted in the southwest Florida News-Press, during mating season:
"You'll get higher visibility in males: Their mind is somewhere else, like teenage boys," Hord said. "They're showing themselves out. You'll see them in the middle of lakes and ponds with much of their body exposed. It's like saying to the females, 'This is my pond. This is how big I am.' "

And the 'gators seem to be attached to their home swamps as well. Smith notes,
Alligators also have an uncanny ability to return home after being moved. In Florida nuisance alligators are often relocated (as are bears in our parks), but were found to return in a few weeks. They finally concluded they MUST be relocated over 500 miles to avoid their return.

No one claims that alligators give to charity or solve equations, of course. But, based on evidence, it is reasonable to ask whether the reptilian brain is as lonely as proponents of the "three brains" hypothesis believe. And if the reptilian brain is not so lonely, is the "three brains" hypothesis really a satisfactory account of the evolution of the brain?

About the playfulness question, I haven't any information. If alligators are indeed playful, the over-curious human risks becoming a plaything. I have not heard of anyone so far who has volunteered for the basic research.

If you like this blog, check out my book on the intelligent design controversy, By Design or by Chance?. You can read excerpts as well.

A fungus sports a harpoon gun - without a licence

by Denyse O’Leary

A fungus called haptoglossa mirabilis uses a harpoon gun
to attack the rotifer (a microscopic animal) and nematode a simple type of worm that is one of the most common life forms on Earth. (Nematodes survived the destruction of Challenger space shuttle.)

The harpoon injects the reproductive cells (sporidium) of the fungus into the worm, and the junior fungi consume it within the next couple of days. They then germinate to form clusters of gun cells.

According to University of Guelph (Ontario, Canada) researcher George Barron, the technology by which the fungus consumes the nematode is tiny but sophisticated:

The head of the harpoon is laminated. This means that it is compressible. As it is pushed up the barrel of the gun it will fit tightly and prevent leakage to maintain maximum muzzle velocity. As it emerges from the muzzle it pierces the cuticle of the nematode. At the head emerges it will 'decompress' and make a hole wider than the width of the bore. This will facilitate penetration by the everting tubular "hypodermic".

The gun cell is anchored to the substratum by a mucilaginous glue. It also has a swollen base. When the base is anchored the business end of the gun cell is then tilted upwards at an angle of about 30 degrees which is very suitable for contact with the nematodes and rotifers that graze bacteria in the vicinity of the cell.

The basal vacuole is the power pack for the cell. It is at high Osmotic Pressure. When the gun cell is released the pressure up front is removed and water flows in rapidly through the semipermeable membrane surrounding the vacuole. This squeezes the protoplasm and nucleus, like toothpaste, through the tubular hypodermic. The Haptoglossa gun cell is only about 15 microns long.

Just how do life forms such as haptoglossa acquire sophisticated equipment, given that they do not, so far as we know, have intelligence in the human sense? Darwinian evolutionists argue that such technologies evolve through a long, slow process of natural selection. However, a harpoon gun that Haptaglossa needs in order to reproduce itself can hardly wait years for Service Pack 2 before it works properly.

It was questions like this that prompted Gordon Rattray Taylor, a well-known British science journalist in the 1970s, to write a book, published in 1982 shortly after his death, in which he asked some probing questions about the traditional Darwinian explanations. He focused on a different creature that also uses a gun mechanism, as you will see from this excerpt from By Design or by Chance? (Augsburg Fortress 2004. p. 93):

A Mystery of the Natural World A Worm Armed for War

Gordon Rattray Taylor was a well-respected British science writer, and Chief Science Advisor to BBC Television. Shortly before his death in 1981, he completed a book, The Great Evolution Mystery, in which he explained why he questioned Darwinism and neo-Darwinism. He relates, for example, the strange tale of the relationship between the pond hydra (Hydra) and the flatworm Microstomum.

The pond hydra is a tiny creature, shaped like a tube, with a mouth end and a foot end. It proceeds through life by rolling end over end. Some species of hydra hunt and protect themselves with a battery of poison guns: tiny stinging cells mounted on their surface that fire a coiled, poisoned hair, with a second hair serving as the trigger.

The hydra is usually safe from the flatworm, but every so often a flatworm seeks out and consumes a hydra. The worm somehow swallows the hydra’s poison gun apparatus without digesting it, and then positions the guns on its own surface. It uses the guns for its own protection; one species actually fires them like rockets at assailants.

As long as the flatworm has ammunition from a previous meal, it ignores hydras. However, when it is low on ammunition, it finds another hydra, eats it, and repeats the cycle.

Taylor asks how a creature with no brain or complex nervous system learns this routine. How does it remember and pass it on? He writes: "The theory of evolution by natural selection is powerless to explain how chance variation could have evoked such a closely coordinated programme."

Taylor believed that evolution occurs, and he also believed that random natural selection played a role in evolution. However, he came to doubt Darwinism, the idea that random natural selection and a few other naturalistic processes explain the life we see around us. Rather, he argued that "we seem to see a purposiveness of the kind which Darwinists refuse to believe in."* Taylor did not believe that this purposiveness—or purpose—was part of a divine plan. He thought it was implicit in the nature of life itself.

Whether the purpose Taylor spoke of resides in the nature of life itself or in something beyond life, many today find it increasingly difficult to ignore—which is why the intelligent design controversy has become so fierce .

(*See Gordon Rattray Taylor, The Great Evolution Mystery (London: Secker & Warburg, 1982), pp. 14–15.For microstomum, search at.)

Toronto-based Canadian journalist Denyse O’Leary ( is the author of the multiple award-winning By Design or by Chance? (Augsburg Fortress 2004), an overview of the intelligent design controversy. She was named Recommended Author of the Year in 2005 and is co-author, with Montreal neuroscientist Mario Beauregard, of the forthcoming The Spiritual Brain (Harper 2007).

If you like this blog, check out my book on the intelligent design controversy, By Design or by Chance?. You can read excerpts as well.

Are you looking for one of the following stories?

A summary of recent opinion columns on the ID controversy

A summary of recent polls of US public opinion on the ID controversy

A summary of the Catholic Church's entry into the controversy, essentially on the side of ID.

O'Leary's intro to non-Darwinian agnostic philosopher David Stove ?

An ID Timeline: The ID folk seem always to win when they lose.

O’Leary’s comments on Francis Beckwith, a Dembski associate, being denied tenure at Baylor.

Why origin of life is such a difficult problem.

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