There are many lessons to be learned from the COVID-19 pandemic. One of the most tragic of these lessons has been the vilification of science. Many politicians and preachers have acted as if science is something to be opposed and feared. Many of our national leaders view science as an enemy of the economic welfare of the United States. Some preachers have portrayed science as an attempt of Satan to shut down the Church and prevent Christians from meeting together. What is the truth about science and COVID-19?
The first problem here is a failure to understand what science is and how it works. Webster’s Dictionary defines science as “systematic knowledge.” Knowledge is simply an understanding of facts. God gave Israel into the hand of the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar. One of the first things Nebuchadnezzar did was to separate the best of the children who were “well-favored, and skillful in all wisdom and cunning in knowledge, and understanding science” and take them to Babylon (Daniel 1:3-4). This led to Daniel becoming a huge asset to Israel. The Psalmist repeated over and over that scientific information builds faith. Psalms 19:1 says, “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky shows His handiwork. Day unto day utters speech and night unto night shows knowledge.” Psalms 119:66, and 139:6 praise knowledge. Proverbs 1:22 and 1:29 talk about people who hate knowledge. Colossians 2:3 tells us that God has within Him all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. Peter admonished Christians to escape corruption and add to their faith virtue and knowledge (2 Peter 1:5-6).
In 1 Timothy 6:20, Paul tells Timothy to “keep that which is committed to your trust, avoiding profane and vain babblings and oppositions of science falsely so-called.” There is a vast difference between knowledge and babblings or oppositions. Science deals with the facts of the COVID-19 virus. How we respond to what we know of the facts is up to each of us.
Science tells us to practice social distancing or wear a mask. The motivation behind rejecting those health practices are worldly pleasures and greed. Trying to test God by expecting Him to void the logical consequences of our actions is like handling snakes or drinking poison.
I am sure you have heard the old saying, “Curiosity killed the cat.” Perhaps someone used it to give you a warning about the danger of curiosity. In other words, they wanted you to stay just as you are and not ask questions.
However, asking questions is part of being human. The truth is that cats are not particularly curious. If you observe them, you may notice that they are extremely cautious. They may watch from a distance or test something cautiously with one paw. Humans, however, are not so cautious in their approach to things.
Humans are born into the world with a lot to learn, and they have to do it in a short time. Perceptual curiosity is the tool babies use to learn about the world. Adults who know the dangers of the world are always putting up barriers because the infant hasn’t learned the danger of curiosity.
However, perceptual curiosity is not restricted to humans. Animals such as dogs and crows (and even cats) display curiosity as they randomly explore unfamiliar objects. They may be thinking, “Does it move?” or “Can I eat it?” That is not much different from an infant’s investigation of the surroundings.
There is another level of curiosity only seen in humans. Psychologists call it epistemic curiosity. Jordan A. Litman of the psychology department at the University of South Florida wrote a paper on epistemic curiosity in the Encyclopedia of the Sciences of Learning. He defined epistemic curiosity as “the desire to obtain new knowledge (e.g., concepts, ideas, and facts) expected to stimulate intellectual interest…or eliminate conditions of informational deprivation.” Epistemic curiosity requires an understanding of complex language and the ability to think and reason. It goes beyond infant or animal curiosity. Humans display epistemic curiosity after their perceptual curiosity has given them the necessary tools.
Epistemic curiosity leads humans to go beyond creating simple tools, which some animals can do, to imagining and inventing new creative possibilities. It has paved the way for creativity in music, art, and science. Humans have an intellectual interest in things beyond what is required for mere survival. We want to eliminate “informational deprivation.” We wonder what would happen if…, and what will happen when…” We want to know if there is a God. We want to know if this life is all there is. This ministry seeks to encourage that curiosity and encourage people to follow the evidence where it leads. The problem comes when people choose to stay at the perceptual curiosity level. “If our senses can’t detect it, then it doesn’t exist.” “The cosmos is all there is or was or ever will be.” “Curiosity killed the cat, so, therefore, don’t be curious.” “Don’t ask too many questions.”
If someone wants you to stay just as you are and avoid the danger of curiosity–beware! Don’t be afraid to ask the crucial questions. Sadly, it is not always unbelievers who avoid the danger of curiosity. God is not afraid of our questions. Let us, like Job, not be afraid to ask the questions–and accept the answers.
It is interesting how difficult it seems to be for humans to practice social distancing to control disease. Scientific American published an article about social distancing in animals. Disease control is a basic need for all animals, but only humans create vaccines. So how do animals in the wild prevent the spread of disease?
Research on spiny lobsters shows that lobsters infected with a virus called Panulirus argus give off a smell in their urine that causes other lobsters to leave the area. Because of the economic value of lobster populations, much research has gone into understanding how this social distancing works.
A particular fungus spreads its spores by physical contact between ants. Other ants keep infected ants away from the colony and especially away from the queen and the nurse ants that take care of the brood to protect the ant population from the threat. Researchers have discovered social distancing in animals such as finches, guppies, mandrills, and mongooses. They all have procedures to isolate infected individuals and prevent the spread of disease.
Interestingly, God’s design for life includes social distancing in animals to stop viruses and fungi from spreading among their populations. Humans should not only be concerned about distancing from infected humans, but also from those animals that can spread diseases that affect humans. Trying to have animal pets that can carry diseases that threaten humans seems to be something we should all reconsider.
There is an interesting relationship between anemones and clownfish. If you have had the joy of snorkeling in undeveloped areas, you may have had the unpleasant experience of bumping into one of some 800 species of anemones. Their tentacles contain toxin-filled capsules called nematocysts that fire stingers at anything that touches them. I can tell you from personal experience that it is extremely painful.
I finally learned to stay away from the anemones and just look at them. I saw that some fish died when they touched the tentacles. Interestingly, other fish, shrimp, and crabs lived among the tentacles and seemed unaffected by their stings. The very colorful clownfish lives right in the middle of the tentacles and appears to be immune to the anemone’s poison. Spider crabs and shrimp live at the base of the anemones. Crabs carry around baby anemones using them as defensive weapons. Even a baby anemone could deliver a nasty sting to my finger.
The clownfish seem to have the greatest skill for avoiding the anemone stings. When the clownfish is threatened, it will dive into the anemone tentacles for protection. The anemones eat algae remains that float in the water, and also small fish, sea urchins, shrimp, and some crabs. The clownfish benefit the anemones by removing parasites from them while the anemones provide the clownfish protection from predators.
So how do the clownfish avoid being stung by the anemones? They secrete a very thick mucus that does not trigger a response from the nematocysts. The clownfish can be all over the anemones and not get stung. Scientists are studying the mucus of the clownfish because it has potential uses for humans. The mucus is an anticoagulant and disrupts the gill function in sharks, making it an excellent shark repellent. Some researchers believe that the clownfish gets the mucus from the anemones, but other research studies show that the clownfish has a gene that produces the mucus. Research continues in the study of anemones and clownfish.
Science has a lot of data without a clear answer to how anemones and clownfish live in such a well-orchestrated symbiotic relationship. It would appear that the design of this symbiosis, like many others, is a product of God’s design and is not naturally acquired.
Many times we see animal behavior that seems impossible to explain. We see an interesting example of that in wading shorebirds called phalaropes. These birds can get food that is too deep in the water for them to reach.
Instead of the typical methods used by shorebirds to capture their food, phalaropes take a different approach. They spin around and around in one place at the breakneck speed of one complete rotation a second. They kick seven to eight times on each spin and move their heads to where they can quickly snap up food. Researchers have found that these birds can detect prey, thrust and seize with their bills, transport and swallow the prey, and do it all in half-a-second.
One of the interesting aspects of the story of Adam and Eve is the environment in which God placed them. Genesis 2:8 tells us that God planted a garden, and verse 9 tells us that He planted every tree that was pleasant and good for food. The Bible doesn’t say how long God took to plant the garden and what was involved in the garden’s growth. Verse 15 tells us that “God took the man and put him into the garden of Eden to dress it and to keep it.” After establishing the man’s environment, the Genesis account turns to man’s spiritual nature. But the planted garden with every tree is our focus here as we think about deforestation and disease.
The Bible describes the first humans as what anthropologists call gatherers. Agriculture was a long way off. The eating of animals isn’t even suggested until chapter 4 when Abel brings “the firstlings of his flock” as an offering to God. An article in Scientific American (June 2020, page 8) points out how modern agricultural methods have led to the three major highly infectious viruses since 2002 – SARS, EBOLA, and COVID-19.
Slashing and burning to create land for crops, such as palm oil, reduces biodiversity and puts humans in contact with wildlife that carry microbes able to kill us. Species that survive the clearing are more likely to host illnesses that can be transferred to humans. In addition to the three main viruses of our time, the Scientific American article mentions some other diseases have come from rain forest inhabitants – Zika, Nipah, malaria, cholera, and HIV.
As an old physics teacher, I always had a few “tricks” up my sleeve to throw at my students when they looked like they might be dozing off. Here is one that was usually a part of our studies of kinetics and the laws of solids, liquids, and gases. Prince Rupert’s drops are glass tear-drop shaped beads with a tail. In Hawaii, these drops occur naturally and are called Pele’s tears in honor of the volcano goddess Pele. My students learned lessons from Prince Rupert’s drop, and perhaps you can too.
In 1660 Prince Rupert of the Rhine introduced the drops to English scientists. The drops are made by quickly dripping very hot glass into water. As the glass cools, it becomes hard and clear. The bead part can withstand 3400 pounds (15,000 Newtons) of force. You can hit it with a hammer and it won’t break. The tail of the drop is very thin, and you can easily break it. The result is that the entire bead violently explodes into millions of dust-sized fragments.
If a student were dozing off, I would do my old “A or F” trick. I would tell the student if they could break the tail off the glass bead they would get an A, but if they broke the bead or scratched it in any way they would get an F. With the class watching, the student would carefully break off the tip, and to their surprise, the tear-drop would explode. Then the rest of the students would want to try it, leading to lessons from Prince Rupert’s drop.
The physics behind this is fascinating. The glass behaves as a liquid according to Pascal’s Law, which says, “Pressure exerted on a fluid is distributed uniformly throughout the fluid.” Because the tail has a very small diameter, the pressure exerted on the tail is beyond the tensile strength of the glass. The modulus graph for this material is very strange, with the glass not bending or stretching and thus having no elastic limit. We can see glass behaving as a liquid in other cases. Windows in old houses tend to flow so that the windowpane is thicker at the bottom than at the top. Scientists have learned lessons from Prince Rupert’s drop that gave us toughened glass for the screens in today’s phones and tablets.
We can also learn some lessons from Prince Rupert’s drop. One is that things are not always what they appear to be. The drops are beautiful. Shining a laser into them produces interesting light patterns. The bulb of the drop seems to be indestructible, but a small change in the tail produces wholesale destruction in the entire thing. What was once a beautiful tear-shaped drop of glass is now a pile of powder.
The moral challenges that we all face are very much the same. Things are not always what they appear to be. Something beautiful can become an ugly pile of dust if it has even a single break in any part of it. Sex is beautiful and used as it was designed to be, it can bring great joy and love. One misuse of it can turn a life into an ugly thing that can’t be put back together by any physical process. Only the healing that Christ brings can restore the beauty of a broken sexual relationship.
One of the exciting clues to the Bible’s credibility is the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. They consist of thousands of scrolls and fragments found in caves near Qumran on the Dead Sea’s northwest shore. These scrolls have been useful in showing that the Old Testament books in our modern Bibles are credible. Recently scientists have conducted DNA tests on Dead Sea Scrolls.
Many people suggested that the modern Bible is a modified copy of a modified copy of a modified copy, and thus is not trustworthy because of copying errors. The Dead Sea Scrolls date back to 2000 plus years ago. The fact that they agree with the biblical texts available today is strong evidence that there have not been massive copy problems in bringing us the written word of God.
Molecular biologists at Tel Aviv University have conduced DNA tests on Dead Sea Scrolls. They are using the DNA evidence to tell us more about the origin of the Dead Sea Scroll fragments. They have isolated animal DNA in 26 fragments. Two of the fragments came from cowskin, and 24 came from sheepskin. The DNA evidence supports the idea that the sheepskin scrolls came from scribes at Qumran, although the cowskin scraps came from elsewhere. A few fragments came from Masada some 55 kilometers south of Qumran.
With more and more evidence, we see more credibility for the manuscripts from which our Bibles came. We can trust the Bible and its message. Whatever differences we find in manuscripts are easy to overcome and to understand.
The COVID-19 virus has been too lethal to ignore. This pandemic makes us realize that there are many viruses out there, and the current one is just the tip of the iceberg of what is possible. As early as AD 165 to 180, pandemics killed massive numbers of people. Smallpox killed 5 million, and bubonic plague killed 25 million on four different occasions starting in 541. Researchers today are attempting to catalog links between animal viruses and human illness. They estimate that there are probably 1.6 million animal viruses yet to be discovered in mammal and bird populations and that 827,000 of them could cause disease in humans.
Viruses are part of the natural world in which we live. They serve useful purposes in aiding animal digestion, reproduction, and elimination of wastes. The problem is that each animal has its own set of viruses suited for that animal’s diet and living conditions. If an animal’s virus jumps into another species with a different diet and living conditions, the results can be destructive. That is the connection between animal viruses and human illness. Most of the viruses we know about came into the human population from rodents, including rats, bats, birds, chimps, and mosquitos. Some have jumped through several animals such as bats giving the virus to cattle and camels, which gave it to humans.
The Old Testament laws had health restrictions, which made virus transmission less of a problem. People were also not in such proximity to one another or to animals that had destructive viruses. Living in very arid conditions reduced disease transmission, and the dietary laws worked against most virus transmission. When you read through Deuteronomy and Leviticus, you see elaborate precautions that we now understand had hygienic benefits to minimize viral transmission.
In the New Testament, many of these rules were continued. There was a prohibition against drinking blood, and the increased use of baking and boiling foods contributed to a low virus transmission rate. Moral rules that reduced the spread of disease included the elimination of polygamy and polyandry and the strong condemnation of prostitution. In time, the keeping of exotic pets and the acceptance of foods previously forbidden to Israel tended to thwart human attempts to fight disease.
God has given us the capacity to understand viruses and the connection between animal viruses and human illness. God has also given us the tools to control these virus issues. He has also given us hope for something better. Will we use the tools and techniques God gave us to stop the pandemics, or will we open our culture to more viral events in the future? Time will tell.
Sue Savage-Rumbaugh has made a career of studying bonobo apes. She would have us believe that there is no barrier between bonobos and humans. Her research raises the question of who we are as humans, and she would respond that we are just another animal. There are so many difficulties with this viewpoint that it is hard to know where to start. The most fundamental scientific problem is that there is a difference between communication and language.
Savage-Rumbaugh’s research is the main story in the July/August 2020 issue of Smithsonian magazine. She assumes that environment is not a factor in what distinguishes apes from humans, and she has lived with the bonobos in her research. A tool she uses in studying the bonobos is a “lexigram keyboard” with pictorial symbols corresponding to English words. One particular bonobo named Kanzi has used it to communicate with her. This ape could use some 660 English sentences functioning at a level higher than a two-and-a-half-year-old human child.
The difference between communication and language is an old issue. Aristotle wrote that animals could exchange information, but only humans could articulate what was just and unjust. The famous philosopher Rene’ Descartes in the 1600s, wrote that God had gifted human beings with souls, and, along with souls, language and consciousness. On this website and in our printed materials, we have talked about God’s design in animals that allows elaborate communication. Bees communicate by dancing information to other bees. Birds make sounds that carry meanings and warnings to other birds. The ultrasonic emissions of whales are elaborate communication tools.
Savage-Rumbaugh has shown that bonobos have a flexible capacity to communicate. However, she falls into the old trap of anthropomorphizing animal behavior – reading human interpretations into something an animal does. Statements such as, “She would look at me with a pleading expression on her face” is ascribing human interpretations to the ape’s facial expressions. The symbols on the keyboard are human symbols, and pigeons can learn to peck a particular symbol to get a desired result.
The Smithsonian article quotes one researcher as saying, “Work with Kanzi has always lived somewhere between rigorous science and social closeness and family life.” The difference between communication and language is a topic of hot debate. If you look up the word “language” you will see a significant variation in how different people define it. Humans have language that involves the meaning of symbols, the standards by which we measure behavior, and the values accepted by one’s peers.
The Bible deals with language, and God’s Spirit is involved with our language. When researchers have tried to humanize a chimpanzee by bringing it into their home, they do so with communication, but language is never a part of the process. Trying to turn an animal into a human being has disastrous results. We are created in the image of God, and language is a part of that image.