Ethanol in cold weather

When the whole ethanol boom started picking up steam a year ago, I viewed it with skepticism. But growing up in a state where ethanol was added to motor fuel as a means to reduce air pollution, I had already learned some of its other benefits. These include burns cleaner and works as antifreeze in fuel lines in colder weather. But some argue that vehicles do not get the same mileage with ethanol that they do with non-treated gasoline.

A Virginia Cooperative Extension report provides some interesting information about ethanol, although the data are only as recent as 2005. Despite the arguments for or against, ethanol is certainly welcome in my car today.

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Everyday evidence of evolution

The debate between creationism and evolution is again at the forefront of our psyches (we obviously are tired of hearing about all of the US soldiers dying in Iraq, only 27 months after major combat had been declared “ended,” and we only have more important issues to really deal with, such as our dependence on foreign oil, state and federal deficits, and the offshoring of our jobs). The latest argument that I’ve heard is called “intelligent design.” This theory suggests that we could not have evolved by chance; some divine power was involved in the creation of all living beings. To me, it seems like an attempt to bridge science and faith. But it’s too simplistic, and it lacks any empirical evidence that evolution offers. And now there’s a push to require it to be taught in our schools.

The “proof” that I recently read about refers to the development of the eye. Certain creatures have special photo receptors that allow them to see things that other creatures cannot. Per intelligent design advocates, this could not have developed by chance; some form of intervention was involved. But biologists point to the fossil record and show that a slight mutation that led to survival is the explanation for its development. The fossil record has plenty of evidence of that. I further argue that there are creatures that have eyes that are not very useful. For example, bats have eyes that they do not fully exploit; since they are nocturnal hunters, they rely much more on their sonar abilities. And since the nocturnal carnivores tend to live in caves, the need for an alternative to the eye further shows that evolution had a greater part in the development of sonar; it could not have evolved by design. If that were the case, creatures with similar lifestyles would also have this ability.

But there is more evidence that intelligent design has less viability than evolution. And this evidence exists in our everyday lives. For the past fifty years, we’ve relied on antibiotics to destroy unwanted bacteria that invade our bodies and wreak havoc on our health. During that time, bacteria that escaped the demise brought about by penicillin and such have come back stronger and more resistant to the drugs that we’ve developed. It’s probably a simple example of evolution, but there is plenty of empirical evidence, and it was not the result of divine design (but rather of human ingenuity and overuse).

I think additional evidence is apparent in the cultures of the world. If you look at the different languages that are spoken, many of them developed quite differently across major regions. Spoken languages in Europe differ from those in Africa and Asia. The sounds vary, some are still only spoken, and some use sounds (such as clicking) that are considered bizarre in other cultures. The way different cultures write are further evidence that human language was not developed by design. If they were, I would think that we’d see closer similarities to the languages. Although the Bible’s Old Testament explains these differences away in an incident with lightning striking a very tall tower in Babel, it’s too simplistic and does not explain the huge disparities in language and culture (or as I like to say, the Onion is America’s finest news source). It’s so obvious that one cannot miss why European languages are written from left to right, yet middle-eastern (including Hebrew) are written from right to left, or why European names are in given name, surname order while oriental names are surname, given name order.

These are simple yet compelling examples of how life evolved by chance rather than by design. Simple explanations of “because it’s in the Bible” don’t hold water. It makes no sense to believe everything you read. And the argument of development by design does not have much credibility either, as I’ve just demonstrated.

Time Magazine article, “The Evolution Wars” (the full online article is only available to subscribers; look for the August 15 issue at your newsstand or library)

Time Magazine article, “Face-Off: Darwinians vs. Anti-Darwinians”

Stem cells and cloning

The Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) offers some very interesting programming when you can’t find much else on television (I know I should be reading a book, but oh well). What interested me, though, was Nova addressed the issue of using embryonic stem cells to save lives. Embryonic stem cells may provide a life-saving possibility to many people with terminal illnesses or debilitating diseases. But there are many people that believe that using embryonic stem cells is unethical, believing that it involves destroying one life to save another life.

The truth is that embryonic stem cells used in medical research do not derive from an aborted embryo. Instead, the process involves an unfertilized egg cell (that’s unfertilized with an “un.”) The unfertilized cell’s nuclear material is removed. Next, a donor cell’s nucleus is injected into the egg cell; this nucleus would come from the person who is suffering from a terminal illness (maybe a skin cell or some other non-invasive cell that contains the person’s DNA). The modified cell then receives a stimulus (either chemical or electrical) to start the reproductive process of cell division (I hope you remember your grade school biology). This structure is termed an “embryo.” This seems to be where some confusion occurs. Please note that, according to Nova, the “embryo” did not involve abortion, as most people are led to believe. The cell grows and develops into a blastocyst in a few days. This essentially becomes a “fertilized egg.” However, it grows in a tissue-culture dish. This will continue to grow, and it can be manipulated into specific organ tissues. However, this “fertilized egg” will not grow up to be a full human being; it would need to be implanted in a uterus.

Many would argue that scientists have been researching stem cells for years, and yet progress has been extremely slow. One of the biggest issues is using stem cells to create organs that a sick person’s body would not reject. Today many chemicals are used to prevent this, but they are strong, they weaken the immune system, and they don’t always work. A cloned organ could replace a diseased one without the use of strong chemicals. Furthermore, there is a large difference between “therapeutic cloning” and “human cloning.” What I’m writing about is therapeutic cloning, or cloning stem cells to recreate tissue to replace faulty or diseased tissue in a person. Human cloning, on the other hand, is the stuff that resembles science fiction, or even Dolly the cloned sheep. But those that argue that stem cell research has taken too long and has resulted in very little seem to forget that results don’t always come immediately. For centuries, people believed in bloodletting. It took millennia for the civilized world to realize that small organisms called bacteria caused a number of diseases. Even then, there were many skeptics that disbelieved this. Even if these little organisms existed, others asked how we would be able to treat a person infected with them. Then Penicillin was discovered. Today, there is overwhelming evidence that those skeptics were wrong. Today, we use essentially the same technology that we used 30 years ago to treat cancer. If a new, much more effective method of treating cancer came from using stem cells, why would we reject it.

Finally, I just want to point out that there are real human lives with real experiences and talents that could be affected by this research. Even the family of a former Republican president (Ronald Reagan) spoke out in favor of stem cell research, as did celebrities like the Michael J. Fox and the late Christopher Reeve.

Our society has been involved in a number of unethical activities, yet we often don’t realize that we’ve committed immoral actions until much later. Unlike many of those events, stem cell research could provide a second lease on life for many people. They at least deserve to have a little hope.

PBS – Nova Science Now: Stem Cells article