Mind by design
Carl Wieland and Don Batten chat with neuroscientist and part-time ‘ape-man’ researcher Peter Line.
Posted on homepage: 23 August 2006 (GMT+10)
Dr Peter Line, B. App. Sc., M.App.Sc., Ph.D., (pictured below with his wife Beena) is a neuroscientist whose research speciality is the electrophysiology of the brain. He currently lectures in cellular biophysics and neuroanatomy at an Australian university.
When Dr Peter Line starts explaining about the intricacies of his scientific field, the human brain, his quiet passion is infectious. ‘The complexity of the connections is staggering, just staggering’, he says. ‘Around 100 billion neurons [nerve cells], each connecting to about a thousand others—that’s about 100 trillion connections. And then there are other components, playing many different roles—the complexity is enormous.’
Even a single connection between two neurons (called a synapse) has what Peter calls ‘astonishing complexity’. He says, ‘It’s like a world of its own.’ (See box ‘Nerves: incredibly complex design’)
Not like a computer
Peter explained that the brain is quite unlike a computer, and is far more complex. ‘For instance, if you knock out a portion of a computer’s circuitry, the whole thing malfunctions. But the brain has a lot of built-in redundancy—if part of it is damaged, other parts can usually take over some of the function. It’s hard to even begin to comprehend the incredible complexity of the brain. So it is inconceivable that natural processes could produce it—it is such amazing machinery.1’
Natural selection by itself creates nothing. To ‘select for’ a nerve connection, for instance, it would need the appropriate genetic information, which specifies how to make this, to ‘choose from’. Evolutionary belief demands that random genetic accidents—mutations—have given rise to the new information natural selection would require. Not only to make the nervous system of, say, an earthworm-like creature, but to then progressively increase its complexity, all the way to the fantastic human brain and mind.
Dr Line finds that frankly ridiculous. ‘In the real world, such accidental DNA changes cause defects, they don’t build things up. A defect can give a local survival advantage, like a beetle born without wings on a windy island having less chance of being blown out to sea.2 But mutations in the brain cause brain defects, not bigger and better brains’, he says.
‘There are still many specifics we don’t understand about the biochemistry and physiology of the nervous system’, he continues, ‘and we haven’t begun to understand the brain as a whole. How, for instance, does this transmission of nerve signals enable thinking? And how can that then lead to consciousness?3 There are layers upon layers of complexity and mystery. It’s unthinkable to me to see it as having assembled itself from genetic accidents, no matter how long the supposed time span.’
God spot ‘laughable’
So what does he think of the recent research about a ‘God spot’ in the brain, that allegedly makes people believe in God? ‘Scientifically, the whole notion is quite laughable, really’, Peter says. ‘We can see which part of the brain “lights up” in various situations, such as a person having some sort of “religious experience”, but that does not mean that there is a place in the brain set aside for religious experience, such as a “God spot”’. Although brain regions may “light up” due to neuronal activity, we just do not know what this means in terms of enabling a person to think.4
Although he had what he calls ‘some mild religious instruction’ as a child, Peter says, ‘I had no knowledge of the Gospel or how to be saved. I used to take evolution for granted, because that is what society conditions you to believe, although my knowledge about evolution was really no better than my poor knowledge of the Bible. I wrestled with the idea of God. Any belief system that could interest me had to be true—I didn’t want to waste my life believing in a false God, a false religion.’
Peter was a keen triathlete, even competing successfully in ‘ironman’ events,5 but found that it didn’t satisfy him. ‘I knew deep down that I was a sinner’, he says, ‘but I didn’t know whether heaven or hell—or God—were real. I thought I would just hope for the best if I died. I realized early on, though, that the idea of God creating Adam from the dust, and the idea we descended from apes, were mutually exclusive.’ One day, when pondering this, Peter told God that ‘if you really are there, God, then you have the power to solve this problem for me’.
Months later, and after having commenced a university degree, he attended one of a film lecture series featuring the late triple-doctorate scientist, Dr Arthur Wilder-Smith.6 He says, ‘I thought I was going to hear an evolutionist, but he was giving evidence against evolution. I was taken by complete surprise, but what he said really made sense with what I knew about science. I felt a sense of relief—there is a God. I became a creationist in my heart right then, and I felt that this must be why Christians have that strong faith.’
A few months after his intellectual conversion to creation, he says, ‘I knew I had to personally make the decision right there, or else risk an eternity in hell rather than spending it with the Lord Jesus.’
Peter was in for a shock, though—the first church he went to (after he became a Christian) praised Darwin for being ‘a great Christian’.7 He says, ‘Many churches did not want a bar of anything that connected Christianity to reality—that satisfied rational people and made for coherent doctrine. I realized, though, that the teachings of the Bible formed a coherent whole, something which had to be taken as a “complete package”.’
Interested in ‘ape-men’
In recent years, Peter has become increasingly interested in the ‘ape-man’ area, in which he writes and consults for Creation Ministries. Much of it relates to his own field—the shape of the brain, for instance, is related to the size and shape of the skull it occupies.
Peter explained that there are characteristic areas on the brain surface in humans which are involved in speech and language. These are called Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area.8 These were believed to be absent in the brains of primates like chimps or gorillas.
Hence, when patterns on endocasts9 indicated these areas existed in some skulls belonging to alleged ‘hominid’ or ape-men skulls classified as Homo habilis,10 evolutionists were excited—they thought this proved that this creature had at least a rudimentary capacity for speech. ‘However’, says Peter, ‘recent studies have shown similar regions to Broca’s and Wernicke’s11 areas in living primates, but with a different function, not involved in speech. And so finding these areas tells us little one way or the other.’
Peter chose to develop a specialized interest in ‘ape-man’ claims because, he says, ‘People get intimidated by all of this continual propaganda on “human evolution”.’ He says, ‘The real issue is the framework of interpretation. The same fact (the latest “ape-man”) that causes some people’s faith to waver is actually no big deal when one sees it in a different light. The evolutionist sees a few scraps of skull and sees one as ancestral to the other.’
Peter often urges people to step back and look at the ‘big picture’ of what is being claimed—that the complexity of the human mind is nothing more than rearranged pond scum.
He says, ‘If someone puts a set of skulls in a particular order, how do you disprove—or prove—human evolution at that level? You could take skulls of people today and arrange those in order, but it would have nothing to do with evolution. You need to also look at the genetic and biochemical arguments.’
Things are not what they seem
One of the lessons he has learnt is that things are often not all they seem. ‘For example’, he says, ‘take the tiny fossil known as “the Hobbit”, from the Indonesian island of Flores.12 The original claims are now being rapidly backtracked on, and there are many other possibilities being considered. We have to be careful—we don’t know how much variation there was in the past. There is huge variation in other creatures, so why not in humanity in the past?’
Neandertals and Homo erectus are, for him, examples of descendants of Adam exhibiting some of that human variation. ‘Neandertals, for instance, had larger brains than people today, on average. And pathology13 might sometimes be involved, too. For instance, an increasing number of researchers are now suggesting that some form of microcephaly14 in pygmy humans is the likely explanation for the anatomy of the Hobbit.’
Specimens like the australopithecines (e.g. ‘Lucy’) are, for Dr Line, examples of extinct primates that had nothing to do with human ancestry, as even some evolutionists concede. He says, ‘Couple the fact of increased variation in the past with pathology, and add a bit of spin-doctoring and a heavy dose of wishful thinking, media sensationalism, the need to get results for funding bodies, and so on, and it’s no wonder that there are these repeated announcements. If someone finds a supposed link between two pigs, it makes no splash, but the slightest bit of variation in some teeth of what is supposed to be in the human line, and, wow—it’s almost like ancestor worship. It’s really quite scientifically irresponsible. And the saddest thing is that it keeps many people from trusting the Bible, and thus coming to know Christ.’
‘Christians have nothing to fear from these discoveries’, Peter concluded. ‘None will turn out to be real “ape-men”, because God made Adam from the dust of the ground, not from an ape, and Eve from his side. We were specially created—in the image of God.’
Nerves: incredibly complex design
Dr Peter Line (see main text), trying to explain the complexity of just one nerve connection (synapse) to non-specialists, told us: ‘When a signal arrives at one terminal, it causes electrical gradients to regulate the opening of molecular channels that are voltage sensitive. These then allow certain charged particles (calcium ions) to enter. This in turn causes the release, from lots of little sacs, of very specific molecules called “neurotransmitters”.
‘These migrate across to the other terminal and bind to receptors there. This in turn opens up the channels of these receptors, allowing other ions in. This then causes either positive or negative charges to build up inside the cell. If, through activation of many synapses on a neuron, enough positive charge (depolarization) accumulates, then this will trigger voltage-sensitive sodium channels to open up, causing a cascading chain reaction of these channels opening up along the axon of the nerve fibre, as the depolarization caused by the opening of one channel triggers adjacent channels to open. This causes a wave of “depolarization” to be transmitted along the nerve fibre—similar to an electric current
‘In short, there are many complex factors involved when a neuron fires, which require a multitude of specific chemicals and proteins. Many of the transmitter chemicals themselves, such as acetylcholine, are broken down incredibly quickly by enzymes—highly specific protein molecules which carry out a specialized task—in something like 20 milliseconds. However, the limiting factor of when a nerve can be ready to “fire” again is the time (about 1 msec or even less) it takes for the voltage-sensitive sodium channels to regain their normal resting condition. Depending on the strength of the stimulus (as well as factors such as the diameter of the nerve’s axon), a large nerve can fire (repeating that whole cycle) between 500 and 1000 times per second.
‘Other transmitter chemicals—neuromodulators—alter the rate of transmitter release by the presynaptic [transmitting] neuron or change the postsynaptic [receiving] cell’s response to the transmitter, often involving several steps and intermediary compounds, hence adding extra layers of complexity. For example, transmitters bind to receptors, which causes activation of some molecules that then cause other channels to open, and so on. Dozens, if not hundreds, of different proteins—highly specific molecular machines—are required for a nerve synapse to function.’
References and notes
- For an example of the brain’s amazing ability to repair itself, see: ‘Amazing recovery’, Creation 25(2):7, 2003. Return to text.
- Wieland, C., ‘Beetle bloopers’, Creation 19(3):30, 1997. Return to text.
- Wieland, C., The conscious mind: evolutionary difficulties. Return to text.
- And this is a fallacious argument—the genetic fallacy. Christian faith is a reasoned response to the facts of history, e.g. the resurrection—not a chemical quirk of the brain. See Luke 1:1–4; Acts 4:20, 10:39–41. Return to text.
- An ironman triathlon entails a 3.8-km swim, followed by a 180-km cycle ride and finishes with a marathon run (42 km). Winners usually take nearly 9 hours to complete the gruelling competition. Return to text.
- The Films for Christ Origins series, widely distributed by our ministry in past years. Return to text.
- Darwin apparently died an agnostic. See Grigg, R., Did Darwin recant? Creation 18(1):35–36, 1995. Return to text.
- Broca’s area appears to be involved in the production of speech, as damage to it causes loss of the ability to speak. Wernicke’s area appears to be involved in understanding speech, in particular using words correctly, as patients with damage to this area, although often fluent in speaking, may produce gibberish or incoherent sentences. In people deaf from birth, these areas process sign language, yet another example of the flexibility of the brain. See Sarfati, J., Refuting Evolution, chapter 12. Return to text.
- An endocast is a cast of the inside of a skull, which can show something of the patterns on the surface of the brain during life. Return to text.
- ‘Hominid’ refers to the group involving man and his alleged ancestors. Evolutionists regard Homo habilis as a human ancestor, intermediate between Homo erectus and the australopithecines like the famous ‘Lucy’. Return to text.
- The region is called the planume temporale (PT), which can only be seen when the sylvian fissure is opened, and so will not leave patterns on endocasts of supposed fossil ‘hominids’. The PT has a pronounced left hemisphere asymmetry in the majority of human brains (and recently a similar asymmetry has been found in the great apes), and is part of Wernicke’s language area (which has no generally agreed border). Sylvian fissure asymmetry, which can be detected on endocasts (provided the right cranial parts are preserved), can serve as an index of PT asymmetry. Return to text.
- See creation.com/hobbit. Return to text.
- Disease, abnormality. Return to text.
- Any disease or genetic condition which causes the head / brain to be much smaller than it should be. Return to text.