Thursday, 28 July 2022

A Brief Word About Governments And Inflation


Politicians from both sides keep telling us about their plans for dealing with inflation, while all the time ignoring the fact that they are the main cause of the problems. You see, inflation is one of those things we think we observe when we look at rising prices, but in reality, the world is more complex, because price differentials and inflation are not the same thing, despite being connected. A relative price change can occur distinctly from inflation, but affect inflationary rates. A relative price change is the distinction between an observed price change (linked to currency rates) and the inflation rate. For example, if the inflation rate is 4%, and the pound sterling price of sandals rises by 2%, then there's been a 2% decrease in the relative price of sandals.

Inflation is observed by the naked eye as a general increase in prices, and it’s folly to cite individual price changes without factoring in relative price changes occurring independently of inflation. Prices can change without inflation affecting the change, and inflation can occur independently of the relative price changes of individual goods.

When we talk about inflation, what is often meant is the combined effects of relative price changes and inflationary effects. The amount a price of something changes should not be just attributed to ‘inflation’, as most people do, because the effects being observed are really inflation plus the relative price change. Put it this way; Alice may have a clean car (z) by applying soap (x) and water (y) to the process, but while x and y contribute to z, it wouldn’t make much sense to say that z contributes to x.

So, here’s why the governments are largely to blame for the ‘inflation’ problems they are trying to help alleviate by, in their words, dealing with the ‘cost of living crisis’. Aside from supply side shocks caused by things like pandemics and wars, there are two main ways that our purchasing power is negatively affected; 1) no change in the money supply, but fewer goods to obtain, or 2), no change in the goods to obtain, but new money supplied with which to purchase these goods.

When the governments restrict the acquisition of goods, either by over-regulation, distincentivising investment and production, price fixing, or artificially starving the supply, prices go up and shortages occur, negatively affecting living standards. When the governments increase the money supply over and above public demand, there will be a drop in the purchasing power of that money, and citizens will feel the effects of inflation. If you increase the money supply, then you increase nominal prices of goods and services, and you reduce people’s purchasing power, negatively affecting living standards.

The next time you meet a politician who tells you what they are trying to do to combat inflation, tell them you already know what they should do; they should cut taxes, and stop increasing the money supply and saddling us with more and more debt.


Sunday, 17 July 2022

It's Impossible To Love The Truth And Deny Evolution: Final Part - How We Know It's A Tree Of Life, Not An Orchard


We know that the evolution of life has been occurring on this planet for over 4 billion years, and that the underlying system is descent with modification. But even though we know that the nested hierarchy forms a tree of life, I've encountered creationists recently who say they believe in a common designer but not in common descent. Or to put it in their preferred language, they think evolution is like an orchard not a tree.

It isn't; and to see why it isn't, let me explain why the orchard hypothesis falls down. For starters, let's talk about alleles. If you recall from part 2 in the blog series, an allele is two or more alternative variants of a gene on the same place on the chromosome, that arise by mutation, inherited from two parents. We can study the correlation of pairs of alleles within populations and use the data to measure genetic distance between populations. This is called the coancestry coefficient. We know biological organisms are all related on a tree of life, because we can observe the comprehensive evidence for common ancestry by visualising the genetic relatedness explained by the coancestry coefficient of shared alleles and descent. Through the comprehensive range of multi-allelic genomic data, we observe that the evolutionary tree of life places every species on branches in terms of genetic similarity and relatedness. The genetic relatedness between two individuals is measured probabilistically regarding whether their alleles are identical by descent - that is, whether there is a matching segment of DNA shared by two or more individuals and inherited from a common ancestor (with the occurrence of no other recombination).

The coancestry coefficient is what predicts a coefficient of relatedness between two individuals - a genotype is observed at a locus in one individual x, and matched with genotype of another individual y at the same locus. While there are some misleading putative patterns of relatedness between individuals that share alleles that do not descend directly from a parent pair, just about every subset group of any population is measurable by its allele frequencies, where relatedness is characterised by their shared alleles that are matched by descent.

This is the exact same state of order in the animal kingdom; the greater genetic similarity between organism x and y than between x and z shows the last common ancestor between x and y is more recent than the last common ancestor between x and z. Using the formula, if you map the similarities and differences between any two species, you can place them on a family tree of biological evolution and know which species is more closely related to which. For example, there is greater genetic similarity between humans and gorillas than between humans and elephants, so we know that the last common ancestor of humans and gorillas is far more recent than the last common ancestor of humans and elephants. There is greater genetic similarity between tarsiers and guinea pigs than between tarsiers and kangaroos, so we know that the last common ancestor of tarsiers and guinea pigs is far more recent than the last common ancestor of tarsiers and kangaroos. Tarsiers, gorillas and humans all share a common primate ancestor, but the common ancestor between humans and gorillas (and chimpanzees, orangutans, gibbons and monkeys) is more recent than the common ancestor between any of those apes and tarsiers. Every time we apply this formula to any pair of animals by sequencing the genome, we can confirm how closely related they are in evolution's family tree.

The upshot is, the formula for the tree of life in evolution is that there is more genetic similarity between species more closely related (that is, the common ancestor between them is on a closer branch) than between species more distantly related (that is, the common ancestor between them is on a branch further back), and this is true with such predictability and evidential demonstrability that the tree of life becomes impossible to reasonably deny. By equal measure, the 'orchard' hypothesis completely falls down because this pattern would not be observed if every species or every taxonomic group (or however the orchard proponents define what constitutes a separate tree) was created as a separate tree in the orchard of life. The patterns are formed by genetic relatedness and distance, and they can be deciphered informationally like reading computer code, to leave us in no doubt that the orchard hypothesis is wrong.

From a Christian perspective, I believe we have a common Designer, but from a scientific perspective, I know all living things have common ancestry, and that the vast evidence accrued from sequencing the genomes of most living things confirms this beyond any reasonable doubt. It's not possible to make the square peg of the orchard hypothesis fit in to the round hole of common ancestry, because if the orchard theory was correct, we wouldn't have the genetic patterns we see when we sequence animal genomes.

On top of all the other evidence, there is another absolutely compelling predictive element to evolution too; if evolution is descent with modification in a tree of life, where organisms become more genetically distant from each other over time, then we’d expect to see more and more molecular convergence the further back in time we studied historical DNA. That is, if you could travel back in time a few million years, and find the ancestors of organism X and organism Y, you would find they are historically more similar to each other than modern Xs and Ys are to each other in the present. If you followed the same time line back a few tens of millions of years, you’d find even greater genetic convergence. This formula: more evolution, more genetic divergence; less evolution, more genetic convergence is such a robust predicative model, that it’s another one of those reasons why we can be absolutely confident that we are all ancestrally related.

This is precisely what we find when we compare the DNA of other species and place them in a nested hierarchy of relatedness. If you look at other primates (our most recent evolutionary cousins on the tree of life’s branches) we always find that when two distinct lineages have been evolving independently since their most recent common ancestor, the traces of common ancestry are there, but there are more genetic dissimilarities the further that line evolves. Humans are more closely related to chimps than to gorillas, we are more closely related to gorillas than to orangutans, and so on. In fact, chimpanzees and bonobos are more closely related to humans than to gorillas and orangutans, and gorillas are more closely related to humans than they are to monkeys. Everything fits exactly as we’d expect, given all the other evidence we have for evolution too. Perhaps, now, an illustration will help…..

Genetic analogy
Earlier in the series, I explained that the genetic code comprises DNA made up of a simple alphabet where the order of these letters across the genome creates a unique organism with a unique genetic code. I also posited the analogy of a genome being like a book, consisting of chromosomes, which are like paragraphs, made up of genes (which are sentences). Sometimes it's hard to visualise systems like genetic algorithms and common ancestry if you're not familiar with what biology 'looks' like - so to make this even clearer, let me develop the illustration of books to show how certain this genetic relatedness is in terms of common ancestry within a tree of life.

Let us suppose a highly sophisticated supercomputer could map the genomes of all the species in existence and assign unique combinations of letters of any unique common ancestor algorithms that could be represented with words and then literary sentences. Imagine that as evolution begins, from the crude biochemical stages into creation of the genetic code shared by all living things, we reach a point on the tree of life in which any of the genomes of the last common ancestors of a particular set of branches of different species is represented by a literary work. Imagine too that similarities in literary types and evolutionary branches follow similarities between morphological phylogenetic trees and molecular phylogenetic trees, in that the genes that code traits in terms of size, shape, and structure of an organism are consistent with how those traits are observed both phenotypically and genotypically. In other words, in this computer program, a Jane Austen novel is more like a Charlotte Bronte novel than it is an Arthur C. Clarke novel or a Philip K Dick novel, similar to how a guinea pig is more like a squirrel than it is a chicken or a snake, and so forth. In this illustration, the branches on the tree of life would resemble a literary library in terms of genres, authors, books and styles. 

In reality, analogies are limited, and we have many more pages of text on the evolutionary tree, because genes expand across species in a non-linear way too, and each species has thousands of protein-coding genes - but a literary illustration will suffice to convey the broader point. Evolution works by shuffling the letters (sexual recombination of genes) where the exchange of texts (the genetic material between different organisms) produces the offspring with combinations of traits that emerge from either parent. We are using a literary library to illustrate the trajectory evolution follows, where each successful recombination of genes over populations goes on to produce the vast diversity of animals we see in evolution, each with their own unique sequences of DNA.

Now, suppose we zoom in further on a particular sequence of, say, a mammalian genome and find that it contains the following sentence: 

“I hope no one who reads this book has been quite as miserable as Susan and Lucy were that night; but if you have been - if you've been up all night and cried till you have no more tears left in you - you will know that there comes in the end a sort of quietness. You feel as if nothing is ever going to happen again.”

Let’s say that this sentence, From C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, is found on the guinea pig genome. We’d expect to see on other rodent species quotes in the genome that resemble these works from Narnia (or, at least, the same author); for example porcupines are closely related to guinea pigs, so we wouldn’t be surprised to find something like “Awake. Love. Think. Speak. Be walking trees. Be talking beasts. Be divine waters.” (from The Magician’s Nephew) on a porcupine genotype. Perhaps on beavers we’d find texts from Lewis's The Great Divorce, whereas on rabbits we might find texts by Tolkien (because rabbits are not rodents but they are similar). We’d find nothing from Ayn Rand or Phillip Larkin in the rodent group, and likewise, if John Donne and George Herbert were found on marsupial genomes, then we’d find quite a genetic distance in our library between them and something by John Paul Sartre or Albert Camus, who might be sharks or swordfish. We’d find Dostoevsky and Tolstoy on closer branches than we’d find Evelyn Waugh and PG. Wodhouse. Dickens would be closer to Hardy than he would Burgess; bonobos would be closer to gorillas than they would wombats - the tree of both biology and literature form a compatible nested branching structure.

Evolution here looks like a library. And extending the library analogy to all biological life, we can read the genomes of most species that exist in a similar way to how we can discern patters in text sequences (it’s not quite the same, but the library analogy is to make it easier for you to visualise). That is, we can read the DNA of any 2 species (or as many as we choose) and plot the genetic relatedness and get exactly what you'd expect from common ancestry and a nested hierarchy within a tree of life.

And here the story goes deeper, because every literary sentence we could read on genes, whether it's from Hemingway, Homer or Hugo, would itself be subject to mutations within species, where we could map which lines come from which branch, and observe how they've evolved too. Take the line from Narnia again, which appears on a particular gene sequence on a particular guinea pig: 

“I hope no one who reads this book has been quite as miserable as Susan and Lucy were that night; but if you have been - if you've been up all night and cried till you have no more tears left in you - you will know that there comes in the end a sort of quietness. You feel as if nothing is ever going to happen again.” 

A few hundred or thousand generations down the line of breeding, we might find this: 

“You would not have called to me unless I had been calling to you," said the Lion.” (From The Silver Chair) 

And we might have got there on a journey like this:

1) "You one who looks this book unless been quite as miserable as Susan and Lion"

5) "You would not looks this book unless been quite as calling as Susan and Lion"

10) "You would not looks this book unless I had as calling as Susan and Lion"

15) "You would not have this me unless I had as calling as said and Lion"

20) "You would not have called to me unless I had been calling to you," said the Lion.”

That is, not only can we observe different authors, works and genres in our library of life by significant changes in the genome at the level of species, in which splits into more genetically distinct descendant populations isolates groups so they can no longer breed successfully, we can see the gradual accumulation of genetic differences along the way, as books by single authors evolve into new books, and eventually brand new authors, and brand new styles and genres. That's one of the profound things about both evolution and literature - there is so much distinction and at the same time so much similarity and relatedness and common ground.

As we saw in part 4 in the series, speciation begins when a population of interbreeding organisms divides into two populations of different species. At the point of speciation, there has been a recent divide from common ancestor (or really it's a population of ancestors), which means the two new species will have close to identical genes in the early stage. As time goes on, those organisms will begin to develop grater differences in their genomes. Returning to our literary library analogy, as the genomes evolve, they are a bit (although not entirely) like texts of novels being copied but with copying changes (mutations), where once a change has occurred, that becomes the new text from which future copies will be made (and so on). Let's take this passage from C.S. Lewis's The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, and imagine it is found on the genomes of a species of rodent that is about to divide into two sub-populations. 

“A powerful dragon crying its eyes out under the moon in a deserted valley is a sight and a sound hardly to be imagined.” 

Now consider two independent copies are made of that gene, with the following coping error in each, respectively:

Copy A (49) -“A powerful dragon crying its eyes out under the moon in a dewerted valley is a sight and a sound hardly to be imagined.”

Copy B  (2) - “A bowerful dragon crying its eyes out under the moon in a deserted valley is a sight and a sound hardly to be imagined.”

Copy A has the first copying error on letter number 49 in the sequence, and Copy B has the first copying error on letter number 2 in the sequence. Now observe when both Copy A and Copy B are copied a further time, and these are the results.

Copy A1 (49, 10) -“A powerful cragon crying its eyes out under the moon in a dewerted valley is a sight and a sound hardly to be imagined.”

Copy B1 (2, 15) - “A bowerful dragob crying its eyes out under the moon in a deserted valley is a sight and a sound hardly to be imagined.”

Copy A has a further copying error on letter 10 in the sequence, and Copy B has a further copying error on letter 15 in the sequence. Let's observe two further copies that emerge from each:

Copy A2 (49, 10, 54) -“A powerful cragon crying its eyes out under the moon in a dewertef valley is a sight and a sound hardly to be imagined.”

Copy B2 (2, 15, 20) - “A bowerful dragob cryihg its eyes out under the moon in a deserted valley is a sight and a sound hardly to be imagined.”

Copy A3 (49, 10, 54, 4) -“A poqerful cragon crying its eyes out under the moon in a dewertef valley is a sight and a sound hardly to be imagined.”

Copy B3 (2, 15, 20, 63) - “A bowerful dragob cryihg its eyes out under the moon in a deserted valley is s sight and a sound hardly to be imagined.”

A bit further down the reproductive line, you see a genome with the following sequence:

Copy ?? (49, 10, 54, 4, 17, 26) -“A poqerful cragon ctying its eues out under the moon in a dewertef valley is a sight and a sound hardly to be imagined.”

Just one look at the sequence shows beyond any reasonable doubt that this is the progeny of the A lineage and not the B lineage. You can see the sequence consists of past mutations and two new ones, making it obvious to which text (genome) it belongs. Imagine what the biological world is like, where we are analysing whole books of thousands of related species that have been copied over and over again, with small changes in text every time it is copied in a fertile sexual union. This is what we see in evolution's tree of life. Genomes that are similar, with chapters and paragraphs and sentences that have undergone mappable changes, telling a story of evolved genomes. This literary-like biological story doesn't just give us an observable trail of evidence for common ancestry, it also equips us with robust predictive power about the data and patterns we should expect to observe when we analyse the genomes in the biological sphere.

Be careful not to take analogies too far though. The library of evolution has been to convey that the entire tree of life can be read as though it is journey of evolution, where text-like information shows common descent, and a nested hierarchy of relatedness. Studying genetics confirms beyond any reasonable doubt that all species evolved from at least one early common ancestor, and that the further we observe along the evolutionary tree the greater the genomic similarities occur in exactly the places we would expect if evolution really happened.

Be wary, you will meet creationists who proclaim that these similarities in DNA are simply the result of God's 'common design' not descent with modification in separate species in a tree of life. But common design is not sufficient to explain the patterns of relatedness observed with the comprehensive studies of genetic relatedness, and how the chapters, paragraphs, sentences and copying changes are expressed in line with the ancestral pattern predicted in the tree of life.


Wednesday, 13 July 2022

Answers To The Proust Questionnaire

 

What is your idea of perfect happiness?
When God is happy with me

What is your most marked characteristic?
My height

What do you consider your greatest achievement?
The books I've written

What is your greatest fear?
The death of the people I love most

What historical figure do you most identify with?
C.S. Lewis

Which living person do you most admire?
Anyone who is the best in their field

Who are your heroes in real life?
Kind, generous-hearted pastoral folk. And people who have given their lives in battle to protect our freedoms

What is the trait you most deplore in yourself?
I asked my wife what is my most deplorable trait, and she says I don't have any. She's a great judge of character, so I'll settle for that. Haha! If I'm being less generous, I'd say my getting frustrated and uncharitable when I think people are wrong but won't budge on it or (in my view) yield to reason 

What is the trait you most deplore in others?
Arrogant foolishness with an unwillingness to learn

What is your favourite journey?
Our daily road to increased wisdom and knowledge

What do you consider the most overrated virtue?
Social justice, and striving for equality

What talent would you most like to have?
I would like to be able to play musical instruments

Which word or phrases do you most overuse?
"Through the lens of"

What is your greatest regret?
All the times I should have stayed single

What is your current state of mind?
Exhilarated, fulfilled and hopeful

If you could change one thing about your family, what would it be?
I wish my dad didn't have dementia

What is your most treasured possession?
Anything my wife has written to me or bought for me as a gift. The memory sticks with my life's writing on them are petty treasured too

What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?
It would be living a lonely life without purpose and hope

Where would you like to live?
Primrose Hill

What is your favourite occupation?
Anything you can do that you love, and at the same time makes a big difference in people's lives

What is the quality you most like in a man?
A strong character who is secure in himself and loves the truth

What is the quality you most like in a woman?
Kind, gentle, strong, witty, intelligent and loves the truth

What is your motto?
I don't have one, but if I did it would be something like; Love the truth, and every other good quality falls into place


Monday, 20 June 2022

Women In Church Leadership - A Novel Idea

In the UK, most Christians I know (myself included) support women in leadership, and by extension, women preaching. However, I do have quite a few Christian friends who don’t support women in leadership, and they attend churches that do not permit women to deliver sermons. They tend to base this on their interpretation of St. Paul’s teaching on the subject (notably, 1 Timothy 2:12 - “I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man” and 1 Corinthians 14:34 - “Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says.”). But most Christians take those verses to be contextual admonitions directed at particular church cultures of the time, not blanket prohibitions of women’s roles in leadership to be religiously adhered to in perpetuity.

Certainly, the spirit of the Bible, and other verses, seem to indicate the acknowledgment and encouragement of the role of women in leadership. St. Paul, in Romans 16, speaks of Phoebe as a “deacon of the church”; Luke, in Acts 18:26, acknowledges Priscilla as a teacher; and in Acts 21, we learn that “Philip the evangelist had four unmarried daughters who prophesied.”. Moreover, great Old Testament women - like Rebecca, Leah, Deborah, Rahab, Esther, to name but a few - were given great authority and responsibility in furthering the Biblical story and enhancing God’s Kingdom.

Consequently, I think the correct Biblical interpretation is that it’s not just fine, but beneficial, to have women in leadership. But that said, those who disagree with me on this are probably just as confident that their interpretation is correct. And it has to be said, given debates like this one are long-standing, and given that the Biblical texts are too low-resolution for any of us to be certain what God wants for His church regarding women in leadership, there is no external metric to which we can assent to find out which group of Christians have got this one right.

My possibly novel idea
With this in mind, I have an idea that’s a bit off the wall, but is probably worth a moment’s consideration. Maybe we can’t know which option is right, but maybe God wants us to make a choice, and maybe God doesn’t mind all that much what we choose about women in leadership (as long as we are kind and conduct ourselves with goodness) because our subjective preference in this matter is a dignity He has bestowed upon us. In other words, as long as churches stick to the fundamental Christian tenets, maybe it’s fine to celebrate the diversity of church styles and denominations consistent with individual consumer preferences.

The church is broad and diverse; some people like to be monks, some like to be nuns, some people are Christian missionaries, some are business pioneers, some people prefer dancing in Pentecostal churches, some prefer quiet contemplative church services, and so on. Maybe it’s possible that that’s how God feels about our preference for leadership; for those men and women who prefer to be led by men, God is fine with a church that sets itself up with only male leaders; and for the rest, who value women in leadership, there are many churches for them too. 

Don’t get me wrong, if we had access to God’s perfect knowledge, and knew all the facts ourselves, there may be a definitive set of right answers about women in leadership that would make everything clear with that degree of hindsight. But given that we are imperfect humans, trying to do our best with limited information and our best efforts at scriptural interpretations, it may well be that God is perfectly fine with our a la carte model of individual preferences, where male leadership churches are fine for people who prefer that, and mixed leadership churches are fine for everyone else.

 


Saturday, 11 June 2022

On The Economics Of High Oil Prices (And Why They Can Be Good)


As we’ve all seen in the UK recently, it costs a lot to fill up at the fuel pumps these days. And as most people are talking about it so much, it’s probably worth sharing a few thoughts.

Why so high?
First let’s examine why oil (and therefore fuel) prices are so high. It’s always largely down to supply and demand, but broken down, the Russia/Ukraine conflict is clearly a big factor, as is the transition from stringent global Covid restrictions to the new ‘living with Covid' phase, where demand shot up and supply couldn’t keep up with that demand. Also, the Covid years saw a reduction in fuel consumption, which hit income for fuel providers, whose increased prices are, in part, to compensate for the pandemic shortfall. Production volatility and capacity at the refineries are a factor, as are increased costs of distribution. The pound’s performance against the dollar is a factor for UK prices. And, also hugely significantly, the government imposes high taxes on fuel, which obviously makes it far more expensive at the pumps. Another significant factor is the ‘climate emergency’ brigade’s war on fossil fuels, which makes oil suppliers nervous about future investment for fear of more stringent green regulations/taxes, which would hit their capital assets.

Price dynamics
Given the foregoing, there are two further things that need saying here about the price increase. The first is that, except for taking off the tax, there is no real way to lower the price of fuel and make the situation better than doing nothing. The second is that, given the truth of the first point, higher prices increase efficiency of consumption. Beginning with the first point; rudimentary economics suggests we can't easily lower the price, because oil is a high-demand but an exhaustible resource. This means that every barrel must be sold at the optimum time for the supplier - if you sell a barrel tomorrow you can't sell it next week, and so on. Deciding when to sell barrels of oil is one of the key catalysts for determining current prices and future prices. And the key inputs to that decision are the current price and the expected future price.

Government activities will generally (but not always) either bid down current prices and bid up future prices, or they will bid up current prices and subject future markets to unwelcome volatility. If the government starts to bid down current prices and bid up expected future prices, they create an incentive for oil suppliers to sell less now and sell more in the future. But this, of course, reduces current supply and goes on to bid up current prices. As a rule of thumb, in a supply and demand free-ish market, the price of oil ought to rise at the rate of interest. This is because leaving oil in the ground is a kind of investment, and investments are generally actuarial analyses tailored to rates of interest. If governments artificially change the price path by reducing current output and increasing the current price, which is what is happening now, then the expected growth rate is diminished relative to projected future interest rates, inducing suppliers to sell more now and not leave it in the ground. Consequently, the very best thing the government can do as a temporary measure to help its citizens deal with the increase cost of fuel is to greatly reduce the fuel tax and offset the loss with temporary reduced public spending in another sector.

Efficient consumption
In the meantime, I said that higher prices increase efficiency of consumption, and here’s why. When the price of a good increases, the people who value it most tend to be the ones who buy it, where the people who don’t need or want it enough to pay the higher prices will either go without or look for a substitute. Suppose there’s a shortage of fuel, and the prices go up because the quantity demanded exceeds the quantity supplied. These price rises discourage casual consumption, and they encourage more production until fuel is readily available again at a more affordable price for more people. If Jeff fills up his car with 60 litres of fuel and sits idly for 2 weeks, and Bob has no fuel and can’t drive his taxi, then the 60 litres have been sold inefficiently. While market volatility isn't a good thing for consumers, if it does happen, like it has in the oil industry, then price increases that reflect the reality of the supply and demand curves are a blessing not a curse, because they cut inefficient consumption (like Jeff’s), safeguard efficient consumption (like Bob’s), and spur on increased production.

Wednesday, 8 June 2022

Five Reasons Not To Commit Suicide: Why Life Is Worth Living

I just felt a strong nudge from the Holy Spirit to articulate these thoughts, to share the reasons why you shouldn’t commit suicide, and put them on video, for some future good out there. I don’t know whether its impact is for this week, next month, or for years later – just that someone might need to hear these words at a crucial time in their life, so better that it’s out there for anyone in need.


Sunday, 29 May 2022

It's Impossible To Love The Truth And Deny Evolution: Part VII - On Interpreting Scripture

 

In recent articles, I've talked about the undeniable evidence for evolution over billions of years, and I did so to encourage Christians to come together and love the truth and elegance of evolution. Here I’d like to pay attention to what is perhaps the main reason that some Christians are creationist - taking the Bible too literally in the places when other interpretations are more accurate and enriching. Some of the most powerful truths the Bible conveys are far beyond the mere literal interpretations of the creationists. The Bible verses are not always literal, but they are always true, and that is the key distinction.

One of the most powerful methods of storytelling is through metaphors and analogies. And what I want to show in this article is that metaphors and analogies are more than just stories conveying simple truths; they are intricately woven into the very fabric of what mind is. It is no wonder that God used the powerful metaphor of marriage to speak of our relationship with Him. The central narrative – that God emptied Himself by coming into nature to incorporate Himself on our journey - is itself both literal and metaphorical; it is literally true because the person of Christ lived as a man, and it is metaphorically true because it infuses an abstract metaphysical power into the entire human history, making the journey and the destination a real tangible goal for every one of us

Let me suggest how we can manage our reading of the Old Testament and conceptually demarcate our history from our non-history - a suggestion that points to a few truths that are bound to seem utterly strange to a post-Enlightenment person steeped in the logic of the Greeks and the empiricism of Bacon, Locke, Berkeley and Hume. Part of the understanding required is the understanding that in ancient traditions, particularly oral traditions, the narrative being conveyed is a blend of fact and fiction, where profound truths are disseminated in a way that requires interpretative qualities beyond the headlights of the kind of rigorous historical and scientific analysis we moderns are used to. Given that life itself is so richly analogical, metaphorical and narrative-laden, it is no wonder that we are insistent that a deep understanding of the Bible won't come to anyone who trivialises its dynamic nature and is blind to its analogical, metaphorical and narrative-laden power.

Old Testament figures like Adam, Eve, Cain, Abel, Noah, Jacob, Joseph, Abraham, Moses, Joshua, Samson, Samuel, Saul, Job, Jonah, David and Solomon are such an agglomeration of history, myth, legend, analogy, metaphor and theological aetiology that we can't hope to pin them down to simple historical/non-historical analyses. That's not to treat them all the same, of course - there are evidently different extents to which the above applies to Adam, Jonah and Job than, say, David and Solomon. What's clear, though, is that while God 'breathed' His influence onto the writing of scripture over the many centuries of its composition, He allowed His word to be subjected to the limitations of creation, and for the narrative to be absorbed into a blend of the literal and non-literal in order to convey the power of the gospel of grace. These Old Testament stories are so psychologically deep and theologically complex that it's not even possible to justifiably approach them through a simple binary literal or non-literal lens of analysis.

The writer of Genesis would have been a significantly different person to any kind of person a contemporary person living in the post-scientific revolution era would have ever encountered. The writer of Genesis would have no apprehension of a global concept, or the size of the world, solar system or universe; he’d have no concept of what a billion is, and no experience of prescribed philosophical investigations or formal empirical procedures associated with the science of the past few hundred years. And it’s highly likely, given what we know of the formal development of human thought over the past two and a half millennia, that he wouldn’t even understand what modern people are probing when they debate whether the Genesis 1 text should be taken literally or not. The concept of demarcating recorded literal history from symbolic theological expressions would be alien to the man who wrote Genesis 1, and to the New Testament figures too, which is why, when Jesus talks about Adam, He is speaking theologically in a way that the audience of the day would understand. When talking about Adam, Noah, Jacob, Jonah, Abraham, etc Jesus is talking about such deep and profound truths, so far transcendent of actual historical events, that those speaking about them in scripture would be quite aghast at how far many modern people had departed from its tenor in applying banal scientific metrics to the literalism text.

It's obvious why we don't need the story of Adam and Eve to be literally true to understand its real meaning of ourselves in relation to God. Literalists insists on reading Genesis 1 to be 6 x 24 hour days, but when we get to Genesis 3, they suddenly stop reading that literally, because if read literally then only the serpent, Adam and Eve receive some consequences for their actions, not the rest of humankind. To see the story of the fall as being about human sin, you have to extend beyond the purely literal. The literal story of two humans and a snake sinning in a garden and everyone else becomes cursed because of it is beyond silly unless we give it its full allegorical due, which is what Paul does in Romans with a figurative truth where they represent all of mankind. Similarly, there is no such thing as a literal tree of the knowledge of good and evil - it makes no sense except as a story conveying deep symbolic metaphysics. But when we see the tree of knowledge and the Fall as allegorical stories about the human capacity for moral agency, and the ability to make choices when measured up against their moral consequences, including the ability to choose God over self, or self over God, we then get to understand what those theological symbols mean. The tree of knowledge of good and evil is meaningless without an already evolved moral awareness and conception of free will in acting on that awareness.

It's absolutely absurd to me that anyone could be so misjudged as to think of Genesis as being science - but to compound the point, here are just some of the scriptural errors that emerge when we try to align it with known science. In Genesis 1, the earth is created before the sun, which is the wrong way around scientifically. Light is created on the first day (Genesis 1:3), but the stars that emit light aren't created until the fourth day (Genesis 1:14). These stars on the fourth day are said to be made to let them shine on earth (Genesis 1:15), but yet on day 1, God had already created the light and called the light “day,” and the darkness “night". And if three days had already passed without stars, those days couldn't have been measured if the stars weren't created until the fourth day. This gets even more bizarre when we see that our sun and moon weren't created until day 4 (Genesis 1:16) and yet we'd already had three days of evening and morning before that point in the creation story. Moreover, if we want to be scientifically technical, the moon isn't a lesser light, it merely reflects the sun's light - which means Genesis 1:16 is wrong when it says " God made two great lights" - He actually only made one great light, and one smaller celestial object (the moon) to reflect it.

The writer of Exodus refers to God "showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love Him" (Exodus 20:6), but according to literalists Exodus documents events only a few hundred years after Adam and Eve. For a thousand generations to occur, it would take 25,000 years. Now obviously, we can say this doesn't have to be read literally, but that goes against the creationist wishes, so they can't really have it both ways.

If taken scientifically, the Genesis account actually distorts the truth of the genetic mapping even further; for example, reading Genesis scientifically we would see that fruit trees appear before marine life, which is known to be wrong, and can easily be observed on the genetic map. Reading Genesis scientifically, we have whales and birds created at the same time, but this is also far from accurate, as birds were here millions of years before whales. Reading Genesis scientifically we have insects, spiders, reptiles and amphibians created at the same time as mammals, which is wrong by a factor of several hundred million years. So even if one questions the genetic sequencing I mentioned earlier (and there is absolutely no reason to do so) a scientific Genesis account would actually contradict the genotypic mapping with which creationists say God endowed creatures – it either has God as a master deceiver or as an incompetent Creator who cannot even create a blueprint to match the genotypic order.

Furthermore, the ordering of the appearance of phyla is scientifically incorrect with a literal interpretation - fruit and seed bearing plants came after the water was teeming with life. Even dinosaurs are long before seed bearing fruits, yet Genesis says otherwise, showing it is not a scientific account. Moreover, human evolution has been going on for hundreds of thousands of years, and given that any so-called speciation that would make proto-humans distinct from humans would have occurred at the population level not at the individual level, the Genesis account that there were two first humans is not scientifically accurate as a literal interpretation. Forming a man out of the dust and breathing life into him through his nostrils is not a scientific reality for making him 'a living being', but it's a powerful spiritual image, conveying how God imparts spiritual extras into human beings that make them over and above the rest of the animal kingdom. A woman cannot literally come from a man's rib. Biblical figures like Adam, Noah and Methuselah cannot live for over 900 years, and Sarah could not conceive Isaac at 90 years old. No human being has ever lived hundreds of years, and no woman could ever become pregnant at 90 yeas old. There was not one world language at the time of writing (Genesis 11:1) and the whole variety of world languages did not literally suddenly appear in one fait accompli moment by being scattered all over the earth, as conveyed in Genesis 11:8.

Let's turn to Noah’s flood as another example; creationists believe that the world really was flooded in its entirety and they believe the Bible says that when the ark rested on a mountain in the Middle East it contained every human and land animal in the world, and that they were the only survivors on the plant. Even if we put aside the mass of evidence of human evolution throughout the world and the copious amounts of art and artefacts that give evidence of their uninterrupted evolution, the land animals issue, if taken literally, amounts to one of the oddest stories the world has ever seen. For example, a literal interpretation means we have to believe that the voluminous amounts of species indigenous to one part of the world all made their way from the Ark’s resting place, residing in their place of provenance, travelling through conditions under which their phenotype wasn’t built to survive, and avoiding all predation along the way (never mind that many would require other animals for food in a world in which all other life had been destroyed). We are supposed to believe that the kangaroos, koalas, and wombats made their way across Asia through the Indonesian islands and over the east side of the Indian ocean to Australia. We are supposed to believe that the Arctic walruses, polar bears and caribous survived the warmer climate of Europe as they all found their way northwards. We are supposed to believe that anacondas and capybara found their way to South America and the giant tortoise found its way to the Galapagos islands, all from the Middle East. It's beyond silly to attempt to take this as a literal event in history - and the author of the flood story in the Bible would think it preposterous if he could fast forward in time and see that some Christians had become so detached from the symbolic and metaphysical theology of the story and its concomitant archetype that they were actually considering it as a literal global event.

Sticking with South America, take (for example) sloths, armadillos, spider monkeys, poison arrow frogs, jaguars, opossums, electric eels, chinchillas, guanacos, caimans, and hoatzins (to name but a few) - it is now possible to draw up maps based on chromosome painting where, with observing genomic sequencing, we can establish the relationship between DNA sequence variations among all these animals, and all other animals linked to them in one big family tree. We can locate the syntenic segment associations as well as the molecular markers within the major clades which delineate families, orders, who evolved from who, where this evolution took place, and the length of time animals have been indigenous to a particular place. Not surprisingly, in our studies of genomes across the world with thousands of species in virtually every location, we found that the genomic studies, DNA sequence variations, and markers within the major clades give exhibition to evolution over billions of years. All the data fits, and we have not one case where a particular genomic sequence has been discordantly out of place on the family tree - everything fits together, and when we conduct new tests on unsequenced genomes we find that they match our predictions without fail, giving us a consistent map of evolution. If the animals had been only a few thousand years old, or had all converged upon their destination from one Middle Eastern centrepoint (which in many cases geography prohibits due to oceans) the genomic sequences would be very different – not matching the evolutionary history that they do.

The upshot of all this is, with regard to the Bible, the intention of meaning shouldn’t be confused with science, and it is for the same reason that the intention of meaning of the works of Keats or Tennyson or Blake should not be confused with the works of Newton or Kepler or Maxwell - different expressions are being conveyed through different types of language. On hearing that a wife's love for her husband "Lifts her high above the clouds", only a very foolish man would say 'No it doesn't, because that contradicts Newtonian laws'. Yet some Christians too often fall into the mistake of doing something similar with their Biblical interpretations.

The Bible contains everything one needs for having a relationship with God. It won't tell you about the age of the earth or evolution or gravity or electromagnetism because those subjects weren't studied in depth by the men of the day who wrote scripture. It’s not as though one needs to put God aside to study science; people just need to stop looking for scientific answers in scripture, because by doing so they skew God's intention, and miss the power of meaning contained in books like Genesis. Don't put God aside when studying science; rather, look at science as the tool with which we assess the finer details of the beauty of God's 'physical' creation.


Wednesday, 18 May 2022

The Foolish 'Windfall Tax' Idea

 

Of course, everyone with even a sketchy understanding of economics knows already that the ‘windfall tax’ is a bad idea. But for those who don’t yet know it, here are a couple of pointers. There are three main things we can do in an economy to make the world a better place; the first is waste fewer resources, which means consuming as optimally and efficiently as possible (which also includes allocating those resources in line with the information signals generated by prices in accordance with supply and demand curves). The second is work harder to provide more goods and services that people want and need, at better prices, using resources most efficiently. The third is to keep increasing our knowledge and our technological capacity so that the things we want and need become cheaper, easier and quicker than they were for previous generations. Whether in times of prosperity, in a pandemic, in a war, or whenever, there is nothing better that we can do for humans in an economy than those three things.

Perhaps now you can start to see why capital taxes like this (which includes tax on capital gains, interest, shareholder dividends and corporation income), dressed up as the ‘windfall tax’, are inimical to the threefold progress of the above. If you tax capital, you disincentivise saving and increase consumption, and if you tax capital, you disincentivise investment and innovation. If you increase consumption artificially, you decrease efficiency in point 1; and if you disincentivise investment and innovation, you tax (in the long run) labour, growth and innovation, which decreases the efficiency in points 2 and 3. 

Taxing capital disincentivises capital accumulation, and therefore negatively affects investment, production and labour. But it’s worse than that, because in the current tax systems money is taxed multiple times, which produces even greater inefficiencies and retardation of economic development. Taxing your earnings and then your capital amounts to double taxation, because capital gains are the fruits from the income that has already been taxed once. Taxing both income and capital is like fining a pedestrian for being drunk and then fining him again half an hour later for having too much alcohol in his bloodstream. Finally, taxing capital is also a deferred tax on labour, because capital is earned by past labour that has already been taxed at the point of earnings, and is therefore the deferred benefits of past labour. Tax the capital that is the present reward for past labour and you’re double taxing the original labour.

The upshot of all this is that a windfall tax is a terrible idea thought up by people who don’t understand economics, for the persuasion of people who are impoverished by listening to those people who don’t understand economics. 

 

Tuesday, 10 May 2022

It's Impossible To Love The Truth And Deny Evolution: Part VI - The Origin Of Life



Abiogenesis is the process whereby once upon a time life arose from non-life. We are not entirely sure how this process arose (although we are not entirely unsure either), but given that God has created a universe of such ingenious proportions, it's not difficult to accept that bringing life from non-life is well within the scope of His cosmic narrative. What we know this far is that all physical things that exist are made from a finite set of constituents called the elementary particles. The manner in which these elementary particles interact with each other is well known; quarks come together to form nucleons, nucleons come together to form nuclei, nuclei combine with electrons to form atoms, atoms combine with each other to form molecules and materials, and so on.

We know about the compounds that pervaded the early solar system, because we know what comes out of stars and what can be carried in by comets. We know this because we can do astronomical spectroscopy and observe the contents of newly formed solar systems. We even know that amino acids, the constituents of proteins (life’s 'workhorses'), are found in space and can be synthesised in a lab by mimicking lightning striking the earth’s primordial oceans. We also know that ancient clays can catalyse the reaction of some of the early compounds on earth into nucleic acids - which are often touted as the 'building blocks' of life. Not only that, but we also know that nucleic acids can spontaneously form the molecule known as RNA. RNA can not only speed up chemical reactions which could confer a biological advantage, but it can work as a template for itself - perhaps the first mechanism of reproduction. However, not all these environments are conducive to the forming of life - in fact, many are impossible incubators. As none of the elementary particles, nor their simplest combinations, can self-replicate in an evolvable way, life can only spontaneously form in environments that enable life to retain its specific configuration of elementary particles that allow reproduction.

We have a universe that is more than 14 billion years old - most of which cannot produce life. However, the elements of the periodic table still allow a rich range of chemistry to emerge; so rich, in fact, that many complex chemicals do exist and undergo reactions. We know that the vast majority of these compounds cannot reproduce under any known environment, but the underlying engine of our physics and chemistry shows that reproduction (self-replication) can happen - it is just such a rare event that it needed a molecule to form a template of itself, against which the compounds in the environment spontaneously formed a copy of the template. Even though our universe has approximately 100 billion galaxies, each with around 100 billion stars in it, nucleotides bonding to create the first RNAs would still be an amazingly rare event in our universe.

What we can extrapolate about the origin of life question is this. In this world, the common states are liquid, solid and gas. We know such incipient life could not exist in solids, because things in solids cannot diffuse around, and atoms vibrate around an average position with too much restriction for life to flourish. Equally, life isn't likely to exist in the gas phase, because the replication machinery has a necessary complexity and weighs too heavily to thrive in the gas phase. The fact that life exists in liquids is because liquids allow signal transduction by diffusion and can act as a suitable solvent for bio-machinery. Life was unlikely to exist in any other state apart from liquid - hence the ‘primordial soup’ metaphor.

The high surface tension, the low viscosity, the boiling point, the melting point and the fact that water expands upon cooling can all be explained by the way water molecules interact with each other - namely that it is capable of making four hydrogen bonds. Why it does this ultimately lies with the laws of quantum mechanics. The Schrodinger equation, when solved for a given collection of atoms, tells us the properties of that collection of atoms. It tells us how much energy we need to pull it apart, or equivalently, how much energy is released when it forms. The same can be said for collections of water molecules. The solution to the Schrodinger equation is found using the same methods, whether we are dealing with water, or ammonia, or caffeine or any other compound we care to study. The properties of water and all other molecules are the inevitable outcome of the natural dispositions of electrons and nucleons. The properties of water aren't arbitrary; they are emergent phenomena of the properties of the universe - just one of a myriad of consequences of the laws of physics.

That fact that life on earth depends on water is a testament to how life has adapted to the aqueous environment found on the planet on which it arose. It seems true that many of water’s special properties played a significant role in allowing life as it is to exist - however, given that the properties of water are just a consequence of the combination of fundamental particles from which it is made, it is no surprise that we complex beings find ourselves on a planet which has this life-enhancing molecule in abundance, as opposed to anywhere else in the universe.

As I recall, biologist Nick Lane has a theory that proton power is no late innovation, but evolved much earlier in the tree of life than we first thought. The first branch in the tree is between the two great groups of simple cells, bacteria and archaea, and Lane reminds us (rightly) that both of these groups have proton pumps and both generate ATP from proton currents, using a similar protein. It seems very likely indeed that both inherited this machinery from a common ancestor, and that this source was the progenitor of all life on earth, including you, me and the oak tree down the road.

It must be said, though, that although traits found in both the archaea and bacteria are most likely inherited from the common ancestor of all life, a few must have been acquired later by gene exchange, thus giving credence to our belief that ‘distinct’ means, in many cases, ‘evolved independently’. We know that this common ancestor possessed DNA, RNA and proteins, a universal genetic code, ribosomes (which are protein-building mechanisms), ATP and a proton-powered enzyme for making ATP. These intricate mechanisms for reading off DNA and converting genes into proteins are rather like a modern cell. Yet there are nuanced differences as well - in particular, the detailed mechanics of DNA replication would have been quite different. Moreover, it looks as if DNA replication evolved independently in bacteria and archaea; that is, most scientists seem to agree that the defining boundaries of cells evolved independently in bacteria and archaea.

So the question ‘what sort of a cell was this common ancestor?’ is, as Nick Lane concedes, a difficult question. Clearly not a cell with no boundaries, that would defy every known chemical law – but seemingly it was a very simple yet sophisticated entity in terms of its genes and proteins, and was powered by proton currents rather than fermentation, but with membranes that are no longer seen in cells today. To compound the point, back then the oceans were very different to what they are now; the primordial oceans were saturated with carbon dioxide, making them acidic, whereas the seas today have more alkaline. Also there was practically no oxygen, and without oxygen, iron dissolves readily – and we can see from our geological studies that the vast banded-iron formations around the world are a result of iron that once dissolved in oceans. As oxygen levels slowly rose, billions of tonnes of iron precipitated out as rust. This almost certainly means that the interface between the alkaline vents and the primordial seas would have been much more conducive to biochemistry than they are today – in fact scientists have found ancient vents with a similar structure and even reproduced them in the lab.

So the theory that ancient alkaline hydrothermal vents were the incubators for life looks very plausible, particularly if hydrogen and carbon dioxide did in fact react in those vents to form simple organic molecules and also release energy. But we still might be wise to proceed with some caution, because although hydrogen with carbon dioxide may well be central to life, energy is still required in the first place to engender this process, so much so that it is probably nigh-on impossible for bacteria to grow by chemistry alone without the catalysing energy. Let me offer an analogy. Think of the energy stored by ATP as equivalent to £1. If it takes £1 to kick-start a reaction, which then releases £2, in theory a cell has gained £1. However, if the only way a cell has to store energy is to make ATP, it can make only one molecule; to make two new ATPs would cost £2. So one ATP would have been spent to gain one ATP, and the spare change wasted as heat. That's not consistent with being alive. Yet Nick Lane is suggesting that the hydrothermal vents would provide a good explanation to this problem, claiming that::

“The fluid from the vents would have contained reactive molecules such as methyl sulphide, which would generate acetyl phosphate, a molecule that some bacteria today still use interchangeably with ATP. What's more, the natural proton gradient would have supplemented this energy source by spontaneously generating another primitive form of ATP called pyrophosphate. Pyrophosphate also acts in much the same way as ATP and is still used alongside ATP by many bacteria and archaea. These bacteria speed up its production using a simple enzyme called pyrophosphatase”.

So the common ancestor of life could harness the natural proton gradient of ancient vents to produce energy, and by some reversing process store energy too, as this system seems to allow cells to save up small amounts of energy, much the same as we save up our loose change and buy something so it no longer becomes waste. This is equivalent to saying that the proton gradients enable cells to grow and then, by their accumulative energy, leave the vents. This means it may well be true that the last common ancestor of all life was not a frivolously spending cell at all, but a thrifty rock riddled with bubbly iron-sulphur membranes that engendered the energy for primordial biochemical reactions. This natural flow reactor, power-driven by hydrogen and proton gradients, catalysed organic chemicals and brought about proto-life (both bacteria and the archaea) that would become the first living cells – eventually producing you, me and the oak tree.

Given the intractability of this subject and the vast domains of time, it may never be possible to know for sure whether or not life evolved by this mechanism, or whether the initial elemental organism with the properties of self-replication happened just once (maybe only once in the entire history of the universe) or several times. But a good case may have been made that hydrothermal vents had the answer. It's worth adding a point I made in my book The Genius of the Invisible God:

"I won't even bring to bear the complication that the tem 'life' is a human construct, upon which we have created a descriptive term for the purposes of classification. The emergence of life is referred to as abiogenesis - which is the point at which the earth's chemistry evolved into a self-replicating system. But the point at which chemistry becomes biology is not an instantaneous moment (and even if it were, it would be an arbitrarily defined human classification). But let's pretend there is one single point in history when we can say that life began - an A to B event of causation.  The putative conclusion begins with 'Therefore, all life is designed' - and from what I've said it is self-evidentially obvious that there are no philosophical conditions under which one can identify a particular point in history as being the beginning of the design of life. All one is doing is looking for the transition from chemistry to biology, but they overlap, and they give no exhibition to any kind of process of divine choreography, because they can be reduced to particles that simulate mere possibility as fluctuations in a quantum field."

The upshot is, the abiogenesis that brought about early life isn't a direct object of empirical study for us - it is probably a one-off or exceedingly rare event that we may only simulate in the lab, where the exact conditions of the actual event are always likely to elude us. But whichever way we cut the cloth, when describing creation - from abiogenesis all the way through to the rich and diverse complexities of life we see after a few billion years of natural selection - we are describing how God has engineered the laws of physics to behave so that it administers His grand narrative.

 


Sunday, 3 April 2022

It's Impossible To Love The Truth And Deny Evolution: Part V - How & Why We Evolved Two Sexes


 

In this blog post, I thought I'd offer a brief explanation for how evolution came to produce two sexes within the species of most organisms. The mixing of genetic material has great advantages. Genetic tricks can be shared between simple life forms to create better adapted life forms. Sex overcomes many genetic problems because a good copy of the mutated gene can be inherited from the parent without deleterious mutations. Mixing of genetic information over populations is a mechanism that has been retained throughout the majority of evolutionary history, because it is so beneficial in washing out deleterious genes.

This mechanism is also part of the reason why distinct sexes evolved in the first place in multicellular organisms - they constitute an advantageous breeding strategy. Imagine that the genetic information is mixed together by the combination of two identical sex cells (these are called 'gametes'). Now, offspring with more nutrients available during development will have a greater change for survival than their more nutritionally impoverished peers, so sex cells would evolve to get bigger, in order to contain more nutrients (these are called 'eggs'). However, the bigger they get, the more cumbersome they are and the smaller the chances of two meeting and exchanging genetic material, so sex cells that are small and quick will have an evolutionary advantage as cells grow (this is one of the reasons why sperm cells are so small).

Consequently, identical members of the same multicellular species will almost invariably evolve into two forms. This asymmetry results in a fork of two reproductive strategies; a multicellular species will have a 'sperm'-strategy from which we call male, and an 'egg'-strategy form which we call female. Sperm combining with sperm do not have enough nutrients to support a developing offspring, and eggs are too bulky to meet one another. One sperm and one egg, however, will form a viable offspring, so that is why there has been an evolution of males and females over the years emerging from those tiny gradual changes in the genetics of the organisms. Male and female evolve concomitantly because two-sex sexual reproduction produces more viable offspring than both asexual reproduction and single-sex sexual reproduction.

Conversely, single-celled life has no need for distinct sexes, as there is no need for nutrient stores for development. All mono-cellular cells can reproduce, and one main motivation for doing so is to obtain good versions of damaged genes. In fact, single-celled organisms have machinery that can detect damaged genes, and that machinery starts a cascade of events which result in sex with the nearest available cell that can respond to those signals. Multi-cellular life reproduces with specific sex cells, and only those specific cells are used for reproduction. Because of the increased utility of the process of recombination of genes, it is unsurprising that over time a mechanism which suppresses the growth of non-sex cells in multi-celluar life would have taken precedence. Evolution works by small increments, and we would therefore expect that the signals for reproduction in single-celled organisms, which detect DNA damage, would be used for exactly the opposite function in multicellular organisms - to suppress their growth and division. This is exactly what we see. The same molecules (caspases, cytochromes and others) are involved in initiating sex in unicellular life and in initiating DNA repair and cellular suicide in multicellular life. Moreover, when this particular mechanism is damaged, single cells in multicellular life are likely to grow out of control, and this is what we see with cancer. These same molecules are very frequently in a mutated form in cancer tissue.

The upshot is, all organisms have a limited lifespan and all reproduce themselves to create offspring. The traits of an organism, called the phenotype, are determined by a heritable mechanism, called the genotype. The genotype is passed on to organisms' offspring through a process that creates randomly imperfect copies of the genotype. Therefore the offspring of an organism demonstrates variability in their phenotype as compared to each other and the offspring's parent. The varied phenotype of each offspring creates a varied probability of survival to reproduction age within that competitive environment. Those offspring that do survive to reproduction age pass on their more heritable phenotype to the next generation.

The laws of physics and chemistry completely determine the mutations and subsequent selection process, just like the laws of physics determine the outcome of a spinning roulette wheel, rolling dice, or where water runs when it lands on the ground. From the fact that all organisms are modified descendants of their parent(s), and that any two organisms, whether living or dead, have a common ancestor, we can infer the primary axiom discussed earlier in the series: that evolution produces a nested hierarchy. As we've seen, since each generation of offspring produce their own generations, organisms can diverge from each other in their succession of traits, especially when they are geographically isolated from each other. When plotted on a graph, this nested hierarchy forms a tree-like structure where the branches are the separate paths that come about as the traits diverge.

We have already covered the fact that, in evolutionary history, millions of traits and genetic differences have been evolving gradually slowly over the course of 4 billion years, so the tree like structure has a huge number of branches on it. Everything that has ever lived fits somewhere on that nested hierarchy, and where it fits can be evidenced by studying the configuration of its genotype to such a precise degree that evolution is as demonstrable a fact as any fact we know. 

We also talked about how all life belongs in a nested hierarchy resembling a tree of life. One caveat though, the roots of the tree, the early formations of life, are not quite hierarchical in the same way - they are more like an intertwined network rather than a hierarchical tree, and it's for reasons I'll explain. Firstly, there are a few of examples when branches on the tree fuse - such as the mitochondrial merger and subsequent endosymbioses, which resulted in the evolution of eukaryotes; or the later merger which resulted in chloroplasts. Horizontal gene transfer is quite common in bacteria, but there is still a core set of genes for each species which can be used to define the species and place it on the tree of life. However, to place a branch on the tree requires a lineage from which it can branch. This is fine for all recent life - tracing back gives three clear lineages from which all modern life arose: prokaryotes (bacteria), archaea and eukaryotes. But the meeting point of these three lineages is where the problem arises.

Simplified, we can't say that archaea split from bacteria and eukaryotes then split from archaea, because there are some eukaryotic 'core' genes which are also present in bacteria, but not archaea. We can't say that eukaryotes split from bacteria then archaea split from eukaryotes because there are genes shared with bacteria and archaea but not eukaryotes. Eukaryotes and archaea couldn't have split from bacteria separately because they share core genes which aren't in bacteria. The only reconciliation is to assume that all three lineages (or at least two of them) were rapidly exchanging genetic material. Generally, the tree of life genes are transferred predominantly by inheritance, but horizontal gene transfer also played a major role in shaping these three lineages from which all life is derived.

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