Thursday, March 23, 2017

For Our God is a Consuming Fire

Fire’s ability to both give and take life has fascinated humans for eons. Its use as a symbol for purity and power is extant throughout the mythos of nearly every culture. So, it comes as no surprise that it’s still a major theme in religious teachings. The fire and brimstone sermons of impassioned preachers have been successful in stoking the God-fearing flames of Americans, but how successful has fire's use as an agent for fear been in other religious arenas? 

Prometheus Bound; Adam, Nicolas-Sebastien

A fairly recent case for creationism gets its spark from an unlikely source. In 1977, Dr. Duane T. Gish of the Institute for Creation Research (ICR) published
Dinosaurs: Those Terrible Lizards,  in which he cites extremely specific examples of evolutionary marvels as evidence for creationism. Perhaps his most interesting talking point is his case for the bombardier beetle (Coleoptera, Carabidae, Brachininae).  

A bombardier beetle is an insect capable of shooting scorching hot liquid from its posterior as a defense mechanism.  It does so through the degradation of both hydroquinone and hydrogen peroxide via peroxidase and catalase, respectively. Hydroquinone and hydrogen peroxide are stored in a collection bladder, and the enzymes, in an explosion chamber. Upon excitation, a door is opened (via muscular contraction) in the collection bladder that causes the chemicals to rush into the explosion chamber. At this moment, the exothermic reaction of the chemicals with the enzymes forcefully ejects water, oxygen, and quinone out the beetle’s rear. Through the sheer force of the ejected fluid, the aforementioned door shuts immediately following the explosion so that no harm comes to the collection bladder. 

A succinct video, provided by MIT, showing the mechanism behind the beetle's caustic blast.

Now keep the previous, accurate information in mind while reading Dr. Gish’s assertion during a Jan. 17, 1980 debate at Graceland College, Iowa

The bombardier beetle is a remarkable little creature that has this explosive mechanism. He stores two chemicals in a storage chamber, and he puts in an inhibitor to keep it from exploding or decomposing. He squirts it in the combustion tube, and then he adds an anti-inhibitor, and there all the enzymes there [sic]—and boom! An explosion goes off right in the face of his enemy. Beautifully timed! Beautiful mechanism! You have to have thick storage chambers, you have to have the two chemicals, you have to have an inhibitor, you have to have an anti-inhibitor, you've got to have those combustion tubes, you have to have the communication network all present and functioning, just as you have to have every part on the rockets to go to the moon present and functioning. How are you going to explain that step-by-step by evolution by natural selection? It cannot be done!

At its core, the argument presented is a palette swapped watchmaker analogy, which purports that something so incredibly intricate in its design, like a pocket watch, could not possibly have arisen naturally; it must be the result of some intelligent designer, ie a watchmaker.

 To the uninitiated, skepticism is understandable given the seemingly miraculous nature of some insect defense mechanisms. Some examples include reflex bleeding, where a ladybug will bleed noxious hemolymph from its knee-joints; alarm pheromone transduction, where one  aphid will cause an entire population to drop from an endangered plant in an instant; or Mullerian mimicry, where the viceroy and monarch butterflies have evolved to mimic each other's warning signals. However, any person with a library card and/or internet access could probably come up with a reasonable explanation for the evolutionary mechanisms behind both the above examples and the bombardier beetle.

Thomas Eisner's Chemical Defense Against Predation in Arthropods demonstrates that hydroquinone is a very common noxious chemical found in insects and that hydrogen peroxide is a byproduct of insect metabolism. Eisner goes on to say that members of the carabid family of beetles, to which the bombardier beetle belongs, contain sacs that store hydroquinone and hydrogen peroxide separately. So, it wouldn't be too much of a stretch to assume that somewhere along the line, some proto-bombardier beetle had a mutation where these sacs were bridged. The gene coding for the conjoining of these bladders (collection bladder) then must have been advantageous to the beetle's survival, thus it was passed on and proliferated throughout generations of beetles. From there it was only a matter of time before a mutation occurred where catalase and peroxidase (common enzymes) came into contact with the collection bladder in some advantageously spicy way.

Oxidation of hydroquinone alcohol groups to carbonyl groups via peroxidase. 

Like Sodom and Gomorrah, Dr. Gish's flimsy arguments can be dismantled easily. It really is unfortunate that so many educated people with influence, like Gish, use their powers to reinforce, rather than dismantle, ignorance. It just goes to show that whether in the hands of a human or Prometheus himself, fire has the capacity to either bolster or undermine.


Posted by Owen Mulledy (C) 


  1. From this particular article, I thoroughly enjoyed all the counter evidence you gave. The one that particular stuck out to me was the bombardier beetle. Reading the mechanism in which it performs the defense mechanism was intriguing. However, asides from the scientific aspect, it brings about a whole new perspective and counter argument to the main question challenging Dr. Gish's arguments. I would love to see how Dr. Gish would respond to this example and back up his original argument, what do you think he would say?

    Posted by Andrew Do

    1. In the original article written by Christopher Weber, he cites that despite being told that his arguments are completely bogus, Gish continues to hawk them. Scientists from San Diego State University literally demonstrated in front of him that when reacted, hydroquinone and hydrogen peroxide do not explode, they just turn brown. Even still, Gish uses this false explosiveness to bolster his arguments during debates, obviously taking advantage of the fact that people are very unlikely to fact-check him in real time, if at all.

      Posted by Owen Mulledy

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. It's definitely sad Dr. Gish is was using his biochemistry knowledge to trick people into believing creationism. Whenever people try to discredit evolution they always leave out the time frame for the development of traits. Its easier to accept complex mechanisms came about after millions of years of mutation and selection but this fact is often left out, making people skeptical about the role of evolution in selection. Obviously the general public doesn't know much about the details of evolution so if someone with a PHD says something you assume they are correct.

    Posted by: Michael Aflakpui

    1. I agree. Like I said in my response to Andrew, Gish has been made aware of the errors in his logic by scientists, yet he still continues to use these discredited-before-his-very-eyes ideas as talking points. What the scientists that performed the demonstration probably didn't consider, is that Gish likely already knew that hydroquinone and hydrogen peroxide don't explode when reacted. Instead, he just used the Big Scary Chemical names to his advantage during live debates where layman, with biases in alignment with his own, are very unlikely to fact check his words in real-time. Especially if doing so might risk undermining their own belief systems. He likely knows that and that's what makes him and his ilk such powerful, dangerous rhetoricians.

      Posted by Owen Mulledy