A Special Plan With Earth at the Center


A new study led by astrophysicist Erik Zackrisson (Uppsala University), in collaboration with a team of astronomers and astrophysicists from Sweden and the United States, suggests that the planet Earth may hold a very special place in the universe after all. The team’s sophisticated computer model simulated the formation of galaxies, star systems and planets using huge amounts of data from astronomical observations and more recent exoplanet discoveries. Astoundingly, the computer model suggested that there are likely around 700 quintillion (7 followed by 20 zeros) planets in the known universe. Even more incredible is that none of these planets are predicted by the computer model to be like the planet Earth.

This study seems to dramatically contradict not only past estimates of the number of habitable planets in the universe but also commonly held assumptions in astronomy and cosmology. One such assumption is the Copernican Principle, named after 16th-century German-Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus; he made an important contribution to our understanding of the physical universe by explaining that Earth is not at the center of the universe and proposing a heliocentric (sun-centered) model instead. The Copernican Principle is a recent philosophical idea proposing that Earth and Earth-based observers do not hold a unique or even a special place in the universe. The famous late astronomer and cosmologist Carl Sagan, for example, referred to Earth as a “pale blue dot” in his 1994 book of the same name, challenging “the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe.”

Many theories in astronomy and cosmology have the Copernican Principle at their core, assuming that Earth-like planets are commonplace in the universe: recent estimates range from 1 billion to 100 billion in our galaxy alone. The SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Institute and the NASA Kepler Mission focus much of their effort on finding Earth-like planets orbiting other stars.

Whether Zackrisson’s new model of the universe ends up shifting scientific paradigms or simply providing an interesting alternative viewpoint, it certainly gives us pause to consider whether Earth is a unique place and the observers on it are special in the universe.

Even if other planets are discovered that resemble Earth, the Bible indicates that in all the universe there is only one place where a great Creator is working with a very privileged and special part of His creation (Deuteronomy 4:7–8). These observers on the planet Earth have the unique destiny to become sons of God together with all the profound implications that go along with that incredible potential (Romans 8:16–17). Based on what we read in shte scriptures, nothing like this plan and its special purpose for humankind is happening anywhere else in the universe. So, as it pertains to the focus of God’s great plan, Earth and its observers are at the center.



Evolution: Science's Center of the Universe
Poe's Parallel Universe
The Drake Equation, or How Alone Are We?


Tags: science and environment, earthlike planets, earth science

Spotting the Counterfeits


Handling money is such a commonplace event in most of our lives that we probably hardly stop to notice it. Only rarely might we have occasion to wonder whether the money was real or counterfeit. Nevertheless, the issue of counterfeiting is a serious one, forcing governments to invest heavily in measures to ensure that money is as hard to fake as possible, even as criminals become ever more adept at doing so. 

The problem goes back a long way. During the American Revolution, the British government flooded America with counterfeit continental dollars in order to destabilize the currency. Similarly, in 1942 the Nazis established a plan (Operation Bernhard) to collapse the British economy by flooding it with counterfeit money. Despite the high-quality counterfeits produced by the forced Jewish labor, the plan was never enacted as the operation was turned over to the SS, who laundered the money to pay for German spies and strategic imports. A similar plan targeted US currency, but the war ended the day full production of the counterfeit bills was scheduled to begin. 

Unsurprisingly, the history of counterfeiting goes back a lot further. In 2010 on the south coast of England, an enthusiast using a metal detector found what appeared to be a fake silver denarius forged in antiquity. The ancient forger had apparently intended to pass it off as one of the commemorative coins struck to honor Octavian’s victory against Mark Antony and Cleopatra at the Battle of Actium in 31 BCE. Having forged the piece a few years after the battle, the counterfeiter made serious errors. First, he depicted the wrong emperor. Second, he misspelled Egypt. Third, the crocodile depicted on one side is facing the wrong direction. The forger also made the mistake of minting the coin in solid silver, negating the reason for forging a coin in the first place. Ironically, experts at the British Museum valued the coin at £3,000 (US$3,800), considerably more than the £100 (US$160) that is usually paid for the genuine equivalent, which is a fairly common coin.

Shortly after his victory at Actium, Octavian, the adopted nephew of Julius Caesar, would become Caesar Augustus, son of “the Divine Julius” (Divus Iulius), who had been declared a god following his assassination by Brutus on the Ides of March. A generation later, when asked by the plotting Pharisees whether or not it was lawful for Jews to pay taxes to Rome, Jesus told His questioners to bring Him a penny (denarius), and then asked them whose image and inscription were on it. When they answered that it was Caesar’s, He replied, “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Matthew 22:15–21).

Leading historian Adrian Goldsworthy considers that “given the amount of currency produced during Augustus’ long life, it is more than likely that the coin in question showed his portrait rather than the Emperor Tiberius” (Augustus: First Emperor of Rome). Nevertheless, Caesar’s image was widespread in the Roman world. Goldsworthy notes, for example, that “more images of Augustus survive from the ancient world than those of any other Roman emperor—or indeed any other human being.” 

Regardless of whether the image and inscription on the coin referred to Augustus or to his successor Tiberius, both Caesars were proclaimed to be sons of a god. Coins depicting the young Caesar Augustus bear the inscription “Imperator Caesar, son of the god [Julius], triumvir to restore the Republic.” As the high priest of the Roman pantheon of pagan gods, Caesar Augustus also assumed the title of pontifex maximus in 12 BCE, a title that Goldsworthy tells us was “never again held by anyone who was not an emperor, until Rome had fallen and the pope took the title.”

However, the denarius of Emperor Tiberius, commonly referred to as the Tribute Penny, bore a similar inscription; Tiberius, it declared, was the son of the god Augustus. The coin read, “Caesar Augustus Tiberius, son of the Divine Augustus.”

Ironically, the resurgence of the imperial cult of ancient Rome—promoting what were essentially false messiahs—had stirred to life again only decades before Jesus Christ, the real Son of God, would be born in the flesh to bring true salvation. Meanwhile Augustus—a man who suffered poor health throughout his life and who, in middle age, wore a broad-rimmed floppy hat to protect his extremely sensitive skin—was in no sense divine.

When Christ advocated peaceful adherence to the prevailing authorities and their tax regime, it was not yet time for Him to demonstrate that He is the true Son of God. The question is, are we able to spot a counterfeit when we see one?




Series: Messiahs! Rulers and the Role of Religion


Tags: false messiahs, religion and the bible, religion and politics

Economic Issues: The Beast in the Machine


Ensuring the health of household finances is likely to be high on the agenda for most of us. In the post-financial-crash world, we have all developed a heightened consciousness that money is the essential oil keeping the machine running.

Much the same is true of central governments. In the seven years since the financial crisis hit, Western nations have demonstrated a resolute focus on crisis management and on kick-starting their economies through a regime of quantitative easing, market stimulation and austerity. The result has been that many of these economies are now starting to yield slow growth and increased market stability. 

However, these measures will not solve the inherent problems that caused the crisis in the first place. One of the challenges to maintaining political and public attention for that goal is that the financial system is complex—massively complex. For governments holding office for finite terms, the primary objective is often economic stability, not disruptive overhaul.

Those initiatives that have been implemented to deal with the systemic problems have struggled to touch the surface of addressing real reform. Such initiatives have included the encouragement of challenger banks—the new breed of post-financial crash banks set up to challenge the largest established retail (high street) banks who lost credibility in the crash—and an unrealized desire to create a totally effective regulatory regime since the crisis.

Scandals such as the rigging of the London Interbank Offered Rate (LIBOR) by a number of investment banks, would suggest that we still have a long way to go to achieving real reform. Connected to hundreds of trillions of dollars worth of financial contracts, ranging from personal loans and credit cards to complex derivatives, LIBOR is one of the most important interest rates in global finance. The daily setting of LIBOR by the banks themselves determined the rate at which they were prepared to lend to each other. The breadth of the scandal became evident in 2012, and involved bankers from various financial institutions corruptly providing information on the interest rates they would use to calculate LIBOR. The scandal demonstrates just how chronically corrupt key elements of the system are.

Ironically, estimates indicate that in 2011 close to half (49%) of the world's adult population did not even possess a bank account. Yet even if we don’t all actively participate in the mechanics of the global financial system to the same extent, we are all impacted by it—especially when it breaks down. Philanthropic and microcredit initiatives do demonstrate a more outward focus, but efforts to bring about total reform have clearly failed, suggesting that the heart of the system is much less like a machine that can be fixed, and far more like a dynamic, wild force of nature beyond our control.

As the world begins to move on, there also appears to be a growing acceptance that the system will never be caged by regulation, only temporarily stabilized or momentarily tamed to allow us to secure our own short-term gains. Perhaps this is a beast that cannot be tamed because doing so would first require taming ourselves. At its heart is the systematized right of every individual to compete for self-gain, such that the wealthiest 1% own 48% of the wealth, while millions suffer poverty.

No matter where we are positioned in the wealth chain, scarcely anyone can escape from the fact that products and markets are designed to gratify consumer desire only momentarily, to ensure the essential return to market for renewed gratification. Therefore, in a very real sense, we ourselves are as much consumed as consumers.

Estimates for 2014 suggest that the number of adults with bank accounts had already grown to 62%. It may well be that government will be able to increase our integration within the financial system. However, based on its inherent flaws and inexorable link to our own flawed nature, should that really be the goal? Would it not be a far better solution if we could be released from its grip?.

While it might not be immediately apparent how this could be achieved, there are relevant principles from ancient sources that might seem simple on the surface, yet offer the potential for radical economic change if we would only apply them. The challenge there is that human nature is not predisposed to tame the beast in the machine. Because the beast in the machine is us. 


Read more from Vision on this topic:

Global Economics and Community

Economic Futures

The Virtuous Cycle: Pay It Forward

Tags: economics, financial issues, global economy

Science and Environment: Change by Degrees


When you think of climate change, what initially comes to mind? Do you think of the need to reduce your personal carbon footprint, or do you perhaps think of climate change as an issue purely for politicians to deal with?

In December 2015 the 21st meeting of the Conference of Parties (COP) took place in Le Bourget, France. The result of the conference was an agreement to limit the rise in global temperatures to below 2 degrees Celsius, or 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, by 2050, with the aim of actually keeping the rise below 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit). A commitment was also established to raise $100 billion a year by 2020 to assist developing countries in reducing their carbon emissions. Parts of the agreement are legally binding, while other parts are voluntary.

The collective political effort to tackle greenhouse gases dates back to 1992 when the first Earth Summit was held in Rio de Janeiro. One of the three resulting “Rio Conventions” was the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), a treaty established to stabilise greenhouse gases, which now has a membership of 197 parties. The main function of the annual Conference of Parties (COP), since its first session in Berlin in 1995, is to review progress made in implementing the Convention. COP3 saw the adoption of the Kyoto Protocol, which set internationally binding emission reduction targets for industrialized nations among the convention parties, based on the premise that (a) global warming exists, and (b) it has been caused by man-made carbon-dioxide emissions. Some countries were exempted, including China and India, on the basis that they were not industrialized during the period considered relevant to the current problem.

While it was hoped that COP15 in Copenhagen would produce a binding agreement that could follow the Kyoto Protocol, which expired in 2012, this hope was not realized and Copenhagen was largely considered a failure.

In announcing the final agreement for COP21, French foreign minister Laurent Fabius said that, "perhaps all the planets were not aligned [in Copenhagen], but today they are." He also said that "planetary configuration," a phrase he attributed to the Secretary General of the UN, Ban Ki-moon, had "never been as good as today."

Despite such optimism, it is suggested that we have already had a global temperature rise of 1 degree Celsius (about 1.8 degrees in Fahrenheit) since the industrial revolution, and that even if rises are held to 2 degrees Celsius some scientists believe we will still see the melting of the Greenland ice cap, thus rising sea levels, and the destruction of glaciers and coral reefs. Meanwhile, other scientists entertain the idea that the temperature fluctuation of the planet may have less to do with human impact and more to do with natural phenomena.

A recent working paper produced by the Grantham Research Institute, however, concluded that "in terms of greenhouse gas emissions today and in the future, the world is running a higher risk with the climate system than financial institutions, in particular insurance companies, would usually run with their own solvency."

The success of COP21 lay in producing the first accord to commit all countries to cut carbon emissions. It remains to be seen whether the ambitious agreement will be realized in the decades to come, or if, as in the case of the Kyoto Protocol, parties will ultimately renege on their commitments.

As our individual and collective efforts continue to fall short of fully understanding and addressing climate change—not only of solving global warming, but even of coming to a consensus on where to begin in tackling the problem—the question arises as to whether the climate will ever be stable and properly understood? What does it mean when at the critical moment, those tasked with finding solutions regard it as equally rare for people and nations to come into alignment as it is for the planets in our solar system to do so?

If we are unable to agree with one another even about something as vital to our survival as the planet on which we live, it can only mean that human nature itself is at the core of our problems. Until we can address this fundamental issue, we have little hope of securing environmental sustainability. The good news is that there are principles available to us, which—if followed—would offer the solutions that endless negotiating in decades of conferences has been unable to produce. We have only to dust off our Bibles and commit to finding and applying them.


More from Vision on this topic:

Climate Futures
Earth's Puzzling Climate
The Missing Dots

Tags: climate change, environmental sustainability, science and environment

Religion and the Bible: Hope Springs (from the) Eternal


When you think about hope, what comes to mind? Perhaps it is a personal hope, hope for family and friends, for the ecology of the planet, or even for world peace. Depending on your outlook, the attitude you adopt may be that better things are always just around the corner; or that the endemic nature of atrocity and suffering in the world renders hope hopeless!

It is likely that we have heard the optimistic epithet that "hope springs eternal." The quote is from Alexander Pope's Essay on Man (1733-34), where Pope suggests that "Hope springs eternal in the human breast; Man never Is; but always To be blest." Does hope still have relevance for the modern world? If so, where should we be placing our hope for the future?

Musicologist and author, James A. Grimes offers some perspective on the first half of that question. In his 2014 work, Violins of Hope: Instruments of Hope and Liberation in Mankind’s Darkest Hour, Grimes traces the history of violins played by Jews in the Holocaust. Each chapter of the book is devoted to an individual violin, documenting how they were used to save lives, ease suffering and how they eventually came to be acquired by Israeli violinmaker and repairman, Amnon Weinstein, who spent twenty years restoring the instruments in honor of their owners.

The violins have been given into the hands of orchestras, and after sixty years of silence were played by the ancient Old City walls of Jerusalem in 2008. In January 2015 the instruments resounded again in the concert hall of the Berliner Philharmoniker, on International Holocaust Remembrance Day 2015, to mark 70 years since the liberation of Auschwitz. Hope for the future, it would seem, is still an active ingredient in attempting to come to terms with the horrors of the past. As fresh atrocities come to light each day, the need for a certain expectation for tomorrow becomes an ever more urgent quest.

As for where we might place that hope, one ancient poet suggests that good courage and strength of heart come from placing it in God (Psalm 31:24). However, for many today this may seem irrelevant: knowledge about God is increasingly incomplete for most of the population, and in general humanity seems to have little interest in pursuing it. 

Even in the 18th century, Pope suggested that human efforts to know and understand God were presumptuous. "Presume not God to scan," he continued in "Essay on Man." Rather, in a tradition familiar in ancient Greek thinking, he urges his readers to "know then thyself." To Pope, "The proper study of mankind is man." While it is true that of ourselves we cannot come to know God (1 Corinthians 2:11), the difficulty with Pope's alternative is that a philosophy only concerned with ourselves has not been able to solve the problem of human evil. History clearly demonstrates that the answer does not lie within us. To have true hope then, we need something outside of ourselves that we can completely rely upon.

In his letter to the church at Rome, the Apostle Paul writes that the creation was "subjected to futility, not willingly" but "in hope" (Romans 8:20). That's where we are today. The reason for the temporary subjection to futility was sin, the hopeless desire of human beings to be the legislators of what is good and evil. The hope that Paul speaks of is the real hope founded in Jesus Christ, the Creator, who has already come in the flesh as the Immanuel (meaning "God with us"). He was described in prophecy as "a light to the nations" (Isaiah 42:6) and was seen, touched and heard by human beings directly at His first coming, when he spoke of a plan to benefit all of humanity: not just to save a few.

It is Jesus Christ who now represents the only certain hope for a better world to come



From the Latest Issue of  Vision:

Insight: A Cross of Iron

As the world arms itself with more and more nuclear and conventional weapons, we find ourselves in a continuing pattern of warfare. And that’s just as Jesus said it would be.

Tags: religion and the bible

Science and Religion: Super-Earths, Mega-Earths, and Answers from a Mega-Book


In July 2015, NASA announced that their Kepler space telescope had found a super-Earth—one of the most earth-like planets ever found. Known as an exoplanet because it’s outside our solar system, Kepler-452b, orbits a live star about 1,400 light years from us that is similar in size and brightness to our own sun. Of particular importance is the fact that this planet is within the special habitable zone of its star, an orbital region where it is possible for water to remain in a liquid state. Earlier in the year, the Kepler mission reached a milestone of more than 1,000 exoplanets discovered since its 2009 launch. Exoplanets can be detected by using powerful telescopes to observe various effects a planet has on its host star. Programs similar to the Kepler mission include the European Southern Observatory and its HARPS spectrograph, the UK’s SuperWASP, and University of California Observatories’ Automated Planet Finder (APF). These along with other efforts have added to the total of nearly 2,000 confirmed exoplanet discoveries since 1992.

Many of these exoplanets are super-Earths like Kepler-452b. A planet is generally considered a super-Earth when it has a mass between that of our own planet Earth and about 10 Earth masses. It was originally theorized that a planet with a mass greater than 10 times the mass of Earth would have to be a gas giant like Neptune or Jupiter. However, that idea was called into question earlier in 2015 with the discovery of evidence that Kepler-10c—an exoplanet with a mass 17 times that of Earth—was likely composed of solid rock. Although it is roughly equal to Neptune’s mass, Kepler-10c is only a little more than twice the diameter of Earth. A new name was coined for this much larger rocky planetary configuration, a “mega-Earth.”

Further study of super-Earths and the larger mega-Earths is considered the best opportunity for finding planets in other solar systems with the potential to sustain life. They are easier to detect due to their larger size in relation to Earth, but not so large that they fall into the massive gas giant category. Astronomers, Astrophysicists, and Cosmologists hope that the discoveries of super-Earths or even mega-Earths within habitable zones of their stars will lead to the discovery of planets that support life outside our own solar system.

The search for these potentially life-sustaining exoplanets is ramping up. A partnership that includes the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (SAO) and NASA are planning to launch the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) in 2017 with the expectation of cataloguing 3,000 exoplanets. About 500 of these are likely to be super-Earths. In 2018 NASA together with the European Space Agency (ESA), and Canadian Space Agency (CSA) are planning to launch the multi-billion dollar James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) with advanced spectroscopy equipment intended to study multiple facets of the universe. Functioning as an observatory available to thousands of scientists worldwide, the JWST is projected to collect detailed information about the atmospheres of super-Earths.

Much of this incredible scientific effort is directed at answering some fundamental questions: What is the origin of life in the universe? How did the earth and its inhabitants come to be in the state that we find it in now? Is there anyone like us outside the bounds of our solar system?

Numerous programs that support the search for exoplanets believe that the answers to these questions can be found by looking to the stars. For example, Harvard University’s Origins of Life Initiative website makes the following statements—“We seek to understand how the initial conditions on planets, including our own Earth and planets around other stars, dictated the origins of life . . .” and “it will eventually be possible to study the atmospheres of far distant planets for signs of life, including planets that might be Earth twins.” As another example, the mission of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence Institute (SETI) is to “explore, understand, and explain the nature of life in the universe.” The SETI website explains their outreach programs—“share the excitement of searching for life in the universe with people of all ages. Many folk are curious about our place in the universe: are we alone in the vast ocean of stars and galaxies?”

By continuing to search the stars for exoplanets, super-Earths and mega-Earths we are sure to discover many incredible and awe-inspiring things. But for questions about the origin of life, human existence, and the purpose of the earth and beyond, we can look to a source much closer that is readily available to all of us. That source of vast knowledge is the Bible.

Consider a couple of passages from this mega-book:

“This is what the Lord says—the Holy One of Israel, and its Maker: Concerning things to come, do you question me about my children, or give me orders about the work of my hands? It is I who made the earth and created mankind upon it. My own hands stretched out the heavens; I marshaled their starry hosts” (Isaiah 45:11–12, New International Version).

“When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him? You made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honor. You made him ruler over the works of your hands;” (Psalm 8:3–6a NIV).

Perhaps we have been using this mega-book and our interstellar observations at cross purposes. “Both sets of eyes, the revelation of Scripture as well as the tools of observation, are concerned with the same universe,” says Vision’s Dan Cloer in “Let There Be Dark.” Yet, one of them is often left out of the equation. How might considering these two sources of information together rather than separately alter one’s perspective—and one’s life, by extension?

T. Brandon Sexton



Let There Be Dark
Poe’s Parallel Universe
Just Six Numbers


Tags: science and religion, space exploration, science and the bible

Life and Health: Achieving True Balance

2015august_vision-blog-balanceIt can be a real challenge to consistently achieve the right balance in life. Wisely dividing our time between work life and home life, personal development and the development of dependents, or physical needs and mental needs—to name just a few of the common dilemmas we face daily—rarely happens by default. Balance is something that has to be struck.

Whether or not we ever succeed in striking a perfect balance in all that we think or do, cultural history affirms that, to enjoy a successful life, we at least need to be working toward it. In the ancient Greek world the value of balance was widely recognized. Aristotle advocated the idea of a middle way between excess and deficiency, which would later come to be known as the Golden Mean. Prior to Aristotle, Plato advised finding the right measures of elements to achieve a positive outcome; Socrates likewise urged avoidance of extremes in favor of the mean. At Delphi, one of the epithets written on the temple was "Nothing in excess." For the ancient Greeks, the idea of balance was intrinsically linked to conceptions of beauty and truth, summed up by the Romantic poet John Keats as “Beauty is truth, truth beauty.” 

Of course, the value of balance is not acknowledged in Western culture alone. The idea can be found all over the world, from Buddhism and Confucianism to Rabbinic literature, Christianity, and within the pages of the Qur’an.

Although many cultures recognize the need for balance, identifying that middle way has always been somewhat subjective. Who really knows where the true middle way is to be found?

Many acknowledge that the Bible advocates balance, perhaps considering the statement attributed to Solomon that “to everything there is a season” (Ecclesiastes 3:1–8). In fact, balance is part of the very nature of Scripture and is crucial to understanding it. Each verse needs to be considered in light of all Scripture, as point and counterpoint are woven together to form the fabric of sound doctrine, or the whole truth. But where does the balance at the heart of Scripture originate?

The life of Jesus Christ exemplifies perfect balance in action. However, in contrast to our world’s cultures, which decide for themselves where the point of balance lies, He said, “I can do nothing on my own.” The balance that Jesus Christ exemplified did not come from self-determination. Rather, it came from prayerfully seeking the will of God. This is, in fact, why Christ could say, “I do not seek My own will but the will of the Father who sent Me” (John 5:30). 




Insight: Working for Balance

Sustainable Balance in Work and Life

Interviews: Creating Sustainable Relationships

Just Six Numbers

Tags: bible, health, stress, happiness, balance

The Multigenerational Effects of Human Behavior

EpigeneticsDo daily lifestyle decisions result in lasting and multigenerational effects on our genetic code? Said differently, can our environment and behavior change our genes in ways that will affect future generations? Research in epigenetics—the science of heritable changes in gene expression—not only tells us this is possible but that it is continuously happening to all of us.

One way to explain epigenetic changes in the human body is to think of a software program running in a computer system. Our physical characteristics are determined by the genes in our DNA that we inherited from our parents. Just as a computer program tells the computer what to display, so there are mechanisms outside our DNA that control whether certain traits are expressed. In primarily two ways, “DNA methylation” and “histone modification,” genes are switched on or off without altering the DNA sequence itself. An example of this process is seen in the development of blood, muscle, bone, nerve, and other cells in a human embryo. The DNA contained in every embryonic cell is the same, but epigenetic mechanisms determine whether individual cells receive instructions to become blood, muscle or nerve.

Some of the major breakthroughs in this field are still relatively new, so we’re just beginning to understand the profound impact of day-to-day activities on our genes and how this carries on to future generations. In the BMC Medicine paper “Multigenerational Epigenetic Effects of Nicotine on Lung Function,” Frances M. Leslie, professor of pharmacology at the University of California–Irvine School of Medicine, writes that “not only maternal smoking but also grandmaternal smoking is associated with elevated pediatric asthma risk. Other compelling studies in epigenetics demonstrate that our diet, exposure to certain toxins, and even obesity can change how our genes express certain traits that increase risk of developing diabetes and heart disease. It is then possible to pass this elevated risk to future generations through lasting changes in gene expression.

Another recent study by the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, published in the journal Epigenetics, showed that regular moderate exercise not only produced positive physical changes in the human body but also made changes in the DNA methylation that resulted in greater muscle health and regeneration. Helpful changes in gene expression like these can also be heritable. Ultimately, both negative and positive lifestyle behaviors—including those that may be considered interpersonal, such as abusive or supportive behaviors—affect DNA expression in a way that has implications for our mental and physical health, and the health of future generations that inherit our genes.

Isn’t it interesting that, thousands of years before anyone understood the concept of epigenetics, the Bible explained the principle of behavior having a multigenerational effect? In the book of Exodus, God describes himself to Moses as “the Lord God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abounding in goodness and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, by no means clearing the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children and the children’s children to the third and the fourth generation” (Exodus 34:6–7).

The most encouraging thing about epigenetics as a field of research is that, with positive changes in behavior, not only do we benefit, but so do the generations after us. Like the epigenetic principle itself, the standards for such behavioral changes are found in the pages of the Bible. 






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YouGenics: The Decoding of Personal Health
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Tags: human behavior

Personal Ethics: Mining for Values

BitcoinMany of us make use of electronic payment systems, such as credit or debit cards, on a daily basis. Whether buying groceries at the supermarket or transacting business through an online bank account, electronic payment is widely embedded into everyday life in many parts of the world. Such systems are one step removed from the physical coinage and notes representing the ascribed value of goods and services.

With the advent of Bitcoin, a fully digital currency, value itself also becomes virtual. The term Bitcoin first appeared in 2008, having been created by a programmer, or group of programmers, using the fictitious name Satoshi Nakamoto. The currency is stored in digital wallets and can be earned, exchanged with others or used to buy things.

The network has been programmed to create 21 million bitcoins, of which over half have been unearthed since 2009. The currency is released through a process of “mining,” whereby powerful computers are used to solve complex mathematical problems and create new coins. As coins are released, the difficulty of the mathematical problems increases. Miners earn payment in the currency and the system of release is thus self-sustained.

Bitcoin is a fledgling but fast-growing currency, with the value of all bitcoins in circulation believed to be equivalent to US$1.5 billion as of August 2013. Though far from universally accepted, businesses are incentivized to use the currency because it involves only minimal payment fees and is not subject to geographical borders or public holidays. Like gold, Bitcoin is also not subject to banks or a central authority—a point of regulatory freedom that is often perceived as a benefit. Instead, it is controlled by all of its users around the world, using peer-to-peer technology.

The creation of a virtual currency provides a renewed opportunity to consider what we as human beings attribute value to and strive for. Bitcoin really only has a value because people say it does. How many of our other value judgments can be classified in the same way? What is it about us that makes even a virtual currency subject to the greed, crime and corruption associated with gold or cold, hard cash? Likewise, what is it about governments, financial systems and society at large that turns us off and makes Bitcoin’s lack of central authority so attractive?




Tags: values, bitcoin, greed, competition, ethics

Current Events: Another Case of Identity Loss


Ukraine CrimeaRecent events in Ukraine have felt all too familiar, but not for the reasons that many would claim.

The spark that ignited a blaze of posturing and accusation from all parts of the globe was the replacement in Kiev of the incumbent pro-Russian government by a new Western-friendly interim leadership—a move that was welcomed by some and attacked by others.

Russia, disturbed by the sudden loss of a key ally, blocked the exit of a Ukrainian warship in the Black Sea, encouraged pro-Russian troops to move into Crimea—the strategically and historically important Black Sea peninsula—and, it was reported, issued similar orders for the Ukrainian mainland. The West responded by promising “serious consequences” and raising the prospect of economic sanctions should Russia refuse to stand down. The Crimean parliament has since adopted an independence declaration from Ukraine, in preparation for an upcoming referendum in which residents will vote on the action. 

The West, led by the United States, had denounced what they call “unauthorized aggression” on the part of Russia. Russian president Vladimir Putin called the Ukrainian change of government a “military seizure of government” and said his forces were doing what was necessary “to protect Russian citizens and compatriots.”

The situation is fiendishly difficult to parse and is far more nuanced than the cloaked proclamations of politicians and hysterical news reporting on both sides suggest. The conflict is formed on age-old fault lines and, as in many long-running conflicts, much of what people say is so polarized that it seems divorced from current realities. What is clear, however, is that it is in many ways driven by a search for identity.

Crimea has not always been Ukrainian. In fact, it is barely Ukrainian at all, being a 1954 gift from Nikita Khrushchev (motivated by familial loyalty) to what was then an internal province. Its people predominantly see themselves as Russian, so the inclination to cede their territory to their declared mother nation is not surprising.

The same applies to many people in Ukraine, who also see themselves as Russian. Ukraine itself was first united as a recognizable polity under the Soviet republic and has only existed as an independent nation since 1991.

There are other concerns, certainly: Crimea has enormous strategic importance, being Russia’s only warm-water port, and Ukraine is a significant buyer of Russian natural gas and oil. And, of course, a Western-friendly Ukraine is a permanent geopolitical headache for a Russia still asserting itself in a post–Cold War world. The West, on the other hand, appears keen to isolate Russia as much as possible. That said, identity remains at the heart of the difficulty.

A similar struggle happened in 2008, when Western-oriented Georgia moved against the Russian provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Russia reacted with force to protect what they view as their territory and their people, despite unabashed Western support for Georgia. 

Russia is not alone in identity challenges. The pursuit, proclamation and protection of identity fuels differences and disputes across the world. Later this year Scotland will vote on a referendum to determine whether to secede from the United Kingdom. Continuing conflicts in Egypt, Syria and Palestine derive from similar motivations. One might argue that the West, in isolating Russia, is pursuing its own identity, reverting to the old Cold War model even as they attempt to offset Russia’s aggression.

The protection of human identity is a perennial pursuit, but one that the Bible recommends discarding. It advises us to reject our own ways and take on a completely different identity and way of thinking—the way of God.

Any identity that is dependent on changeable external factors—in the Ukraine’s case, economics, geopolitical position, loyalties of other people and nations—is fated to suffer periodic unpreventable traumas. It is human to self-protect in these situations but, without underlying spiritual change and in a world that tends toward decay, any such effort will eventually fail.

The Bible reveals our self-destructive nature and contrasts it with God’s alternative. As much as people would like to amend or elide or ignore it, the way of life expressed in the Bible is the missing link in solving conflict. And it offers people and nations an identity that is not only sustainable, but everlasting. 




Russia’s Identity Crisis

Russia’s struggle for national identity sheds light on our own need to know who we are and what’s expected of us. How does one form a sense of identity, whether as a nation or as an individual?








Tags: world news, current events, Russia and Ukraine, international conflict