Tuesday, March 6, 2018


Grant for Medical School Research

Medical research at the Dr. Homer Stryker Medical School of Western Michigan University and at its two collaborating teaching hospitals of Borgess Health and Bronson Healthcare will benefit from a two million dollar bequest given by Martha Parfet's estate.  She is a granddaughter of the founder of the Upjohn Company, Dr. W. E. Upjohn.  Kalamazoo has benefited greatly by the generosity of numerous relatives and friends of both of the doctor’s families.

Clinical research will benefit from the bequest, as well as basic research using tissue culture and cells and animals that share functions in ways more accessible than in human subjects.  Such non-clinical studies can speed, reduce cost, and sometimes simplify the discovery of things beneficial in modern medicine.

BACTERIA share many biochemical features of all more advanced organisms.  In particular, they contributed greatly to understanding DNA related details.  Their beneficial roles as well as the diseases some caused will encourage continued searches for new antibiotics when resistance to old ones develop.

The bacteria of today and ourselves share some of our biochemical processes as a result of our common ancestry over two billion years in the past.  As organisms share more recent common ancestry with us, they are expected to share more features with us although they may lose some and gain others unique to themselves and their descendants.

The figure above is just to suggest what happens many times during the ancestral history of organisms.  There is no precision to it, but the internal lines show continuity in one or both branches (multiple branches may also occur at the same time) and it may take very many generations that may include the beginning or end of new or old features.  The short blue line on the right branch could be repeated in many times and places for numerous other extinct groups from the past.

INVERTEBRATE animals range from protozoans and simple sponges to complex ones, some of which, especially the giant squid, reach large size.   Invertebrates began leaving an abundant fossil record of great diversity about 500 million years ago.

VERTEBRATE animals of today share a common ancestry with echinoderms, perhaps lophophorate animals, and a few degenerate annelid-like worms that gave rise to early pre-vertebrate chordates that diverged from the other advanced invertebrates (annelids, mollusks, and arthropods) near the beginning of the Cambrian.  The following figure is intended to represent an educated guess of some of the ancestral tree major relationships.

The tree of life is to graphically show the central role of the annelids leading to the two main branches of coelomate animals (protostomes left, deuterostomes right with the pogonophorans linking them to the other line) with the vertebrates upper right and the arthropods, upper left.  Plants in green are are lower left, and nematodes are on the blue and red left middle main branch.

Why are organisms important in medical research?

1.      Shared system features of physiology, structure, and biochemistry are likely to be most similar when the distances (or perhaps generations) from one group to another along the branches of the ancestral tree of life are shortest (or fewer).

2.      Some organisms have feature comparable in some ways to ours, but in a more accessible or larger form.  For example, the transmission of nerve impulses was made understandable by studying the giant nerve fibers of squids.  Fruit-fly larvae have giant chromosomes that led to some genetic discoveries.

3.      Basic toxicity studies of proposed drugs can be on simple organisms after or in place of initial tissue culture or other studies.  Such tests may be much less costly in time and/or money.

Where should medical research start?

1.      Most likely it will start as you work with a senior medical researcher using you as an assistant performing work for which you are trained.

2.      A first step that should become a habit is studying the research literature in the library, on-line, in appropriate journals, and attending meetings of your research group.  Especially, attending related research being reported at local, state, or national conferences.  Often, verbal presentations of research include clues of value to apply in your research.

How is evolution important in medical research?

It may not always be important to you if you are a specialist is some aspect of a research project.  If you are planning research it may help you select organisms for non-human aspects of research such as in the first list above.  Keep abreast of new developments, even the most unlikely organisms may teach us things of value.

Although animals greatly separated from us on the tree of life may share some identical features with us, they are expected to have greater differences than ones that are more recently separated.  The pogonophorans clue us in on where differences in biology are more likely to be greater in some instances and less in others.

The pogonophorans are a bottleneck where they branch off from the annelids, losing the spiral cleavage of the three big invertebrate groups - the annelids, mollusks, and arthropods – as well as loss of much of the gastrointestinal system and skeletal functions.   In spite of the latter, cartilage of the squid seems indistinguishable from vertebrate cartilage with casual microscopic examination.

Many biochemical features survived the pogonophoran link bottleneck.  Hemoglobin is the blood pigment of vertebrates as well as some invertebrates across the pogonophoran divide.  Aspects of delivery of pituitary hormones in our endocrine system show remarkable similarities in mammals and arthropods.  Peculiar intercalated disks of our heart muscle are also seen in some mollusks.

If you find commonalities of another organism and humans, don’t use the just stated facts as reason to change your experimental animals.  But consider the discussion as an aide to picking new ones if evidence warrants it.  Selective evidence was used to put nematode worms in a major cluster with arthropods when most evidence indicated otherwise.  The post -

- and the post on May 31, 2013 indicate otherwise, Ecdysozoa is not a valid related group.  Both posts provide references supporting that statement.  I write this with hope that it may be of some benefit to the researchers the grant will fund in the university from which, twenty-two years ago, I retired.

Joseph Engemann   Emeritus Professor of Biology, Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo, Michigan           March 6, 2018

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Evolution: Why God Loves You

You Are Unique

You are the only person occupying your shoes.  Take a walk through the park.  Notice and appreciate the things of beauty.  Hear the songs of birds, see their beautiful color and amazing flight - never smashing into a tree branch.  Look for beauty in insects sipping nectar from beautiful flowers, feeding on leaves of seedlings beneath majestic trees, their forebears.  There is so much more to see and appreciate.

God knows everything about God's creation, from the microscopic to the cosmic.  It is all old stuff to God.  But we are able to appreciate it with awe, wonder, and feelings that express our joy to God.  Don't you get warm feelings when your loved ones are pleasurably moved by such things?

When you have a good story to tell, do you only tell it once?  Most of us enjoy telling it over and over to new listeners.  And a listener may be pleased to hear the same story from others.  The excitement of each grandchild during their early childhood celebrations is always joyful.

There are billions of ways and places to have similar, but unique, experiences foreknown to God.  Share them with others, but don't overdo it, they probably won't have God's infinite capacity for love and empathy.

A unique experience for me that came to mind

Our first year in a new, to us, home, we looked out a window into our back yard.  A large rabbit was grazing on the grass.  About a half-dozen half grown rabbits were cavorting around her.  The most amazing thing was that some leap-frogged over one another several times.  I had never seen that behavior before, nor have I seen it in the thirty years since.  I am almost positive others have seen such behavior.

I am less sure that anyone else believes -

- that some deep sea animals have longevity far beyond that of their shallow water relatives.
- that their environment shaped the pogonophoran transition from nervous system ventral annelid ancestors to nervous system dorsal vertebrate descendants.
- that the deep sea provided areas for the pogonophorans to survive multiple major extinction events making the preceding possible.
- the evolutionary story needs correcting where major changes were based on molecular phylogeny studies using inadequate sample sizes, as indicated in earlier posts of this blog.

Joseph Engemann   Emeritus Professor of Biology, Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo, Michigan    February 27, 2018

The opinions expressed in this blog are mine, not those of Western Michigan University; however, I am grateful for the opportunity they provided to teach courses and do research leading to my understanding of many of the topics I present.  Did I answer the question why God loves you - God made you using infinite patience and the evolutionary process.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Natural Selection and Creativity

More on Wilson's Creativity

In his interesting presentation of how the human brain and many aspects of social biology came about Wilson contends that "Natural selection as grand master of evolution means that humanity was not planned by any super-intelligence, nor was it guided by any destiny beyond the consequences of our own actions." [page 103 of E. O. Wilson, 2017, The Origins of Creativity, Liveright, New York.]

On page 6, he had said "Scientific explanations of organic life, including human life, routinely entail both proximate and ultimate causes."  He contrasts that to the humanities attempting only proximate explanations and leaving ultimate cause to various entities, without much attention to the why of our existance.

 On page 100 he says "Because of group selection, and its obvious consequences in the evolution of human social behavior, there is reason to suppose that the better angels of our nature need not be drilled into us under the threat of divine retribution, but are instead biologically inherited."  He goes on to further recognize our amazing place in nature.

What Wilson Misses

God, as the Ultimate Cause, can take the chance events of natural selection, that we see as the operative principle of evolution, and use them to produce the remarkable human species.  There are obvious bits and pieces of our evolutionary development based on various pre-human ancestors.  But our disproportionately large brain has the capacity for performance well beyond what most of us achieve.

Wilson sees the humanities, language, and presumably the cumulative written record, as part of the cause of the gulf between us and the rest of the natural living world.  He sees the good that results.  I hope he comes to see that the good is God's results.

It is very difficult, for finite beings such as ourselves, not to underestimate the power, love, and majesty of the one infinite being, God.  It is very much worth the effort to try to know God better.  God already knows and loves each of us more than we do ourselves.  It is awesome to consider the immensity of the universe and amazing diversity of life in a drop of pond water.  I don't think God needs our input on how the world should be run.  But we should make more effort for properly caring for our planet.

Joe Engemann      Kalamazoo, Michigan          February 1, 2017

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Evolution of Creativity


Wilson is a remarkably productive biologist.  His intensive early studies of ants helped him found the biological subdiscipline we call “sociobiology” with a 1975 book by that name.  But the social behavior of ants is hard-wired into their small brains and not a particularly good model for social behavior of humans.  In searching for the evolutionary roots of social behavior, ants and humans diverged from their most recent common ancestor in the Pre-Cambrian, so answers to our creativity are limited to very fundamental aspects.  His book is fascinating and worth reading for the spectacular grasp of related facts and opinions, especially the role of language in creativity.

[Wilson, Edward O.  2017.  The Origins of Creativity.  Liveright Publishing Corporation.  New York – London.  A division of W.W. Norton & Co., New York.  243 pp.]

On page 68 Wilson describes his brief brush with Christianity and baptism.  Creativity seems to be tied to the humanities, especially language.  On pages 75-77 he expresses concern that organized religion siphons off funds that would be better spent supporting the humanities.  On page 194 he notes that “it needs to be recognized, and talked about more frankly, that for philosophy the elephant in the kitchen is organized religion.”  -because “the understanding of the human condition often foretold by the blending of science and religion is inhibited by the intervention of supernatural creation stories” of the separate tribes.

Dr. Wilson doesn’t have too many years left to get back to that old-time religion that inspired him as a fourteen-year-old about seventy-five years ago.  Perhaps this time he can apply his appreciation for the humanities to extract the good from the stories and traditions of the monotheistic religions.  It is not too late to develop a warm relationship with Jesus.

Joe Engemann      Kalamazoo, Michigan     January 24, 2018

Thursday, December 14, 2017

EVOLUTION: The Eureka Moment

The “eureka!” moment, when I saw the Pogonophora as the significant link of the two main divisions of higher animals, can be credited to the stimulation of reading Gans and Northcutt, 1983. 

Gans, Carl, and R. Glenn Northcutt.  1983.  Neural crest and the origin of vertebrates: a new head.  Science, 220:268-274. 

They placed the pogonophorans in line with the vertebrates based on development.  I was sure the evidence was overwhelming that pogonophorans were close to, or one of, the annelids.  But I also realized most scientists are honorable and truthful in their work and deserve to be taken seriously.  But how could Gans & Northcutt be right when the overwhelming evidence indicated pogonophorans were close to annelids and other protostomes?  Somehow, in an instant, I realized it could be true if pogonophorans were a connecting link.  A deluge of such evidence came to mind.  And, as I followed new, as well as some older, molecular and other evidence the connection became well supported. 

Engemann, Joseph G.  1968.  Pogonophora: the oldest living animals?  Pap. Mich. Acad. Sci., Arts, and Letters, 53:105-108.

Engemann, J. G.  1983.  Coelomate animals are monophyletic.  American Zoologist, 23(4):1008. Abstract # 753.  The Pogonophora have characteristics of both protostomes and deuterostomes and provide support for the annelid theory of origin of deuterostomes.

Understanding the extreme age of individual pogonophorans, suggested in the 1968 report above, was a result of preparing a new section on pogonophorans for the 1968 edition of Hegner and Engemann’s Invertebrate Zoology text.  It was reprinted in chapter 14 of the 1981 edition (Engemann and Hegner) which discussed the evidence making it very likely deep-sea animals typically have very extended lives and low respiratory rates.  My 1983 abstract noted above was reported shortly after Gans and Northcutt triggered my conclusion with their evidence. 

A full report of the paper was submitted to Nature.  The reviewers did not reject the paper but the editor decided not to publish it because it was not of wide enough interest.  I had given it a title suggesting pogonophorans were the protostome-deuterostome link.  He was not moved by my suggestion that a catchier title would have been “my ancestors were worms”.

Of course, there is a whole sequence of organisms from protozoans through sponges, jellyfish, flatworms, fish, amphibians, reptiles, insectivores, primates and closer relatives in our direct lineage.  But we don’t have direct ancestry through either nematodes, mollusks, arthropods, echinoderms, or many other groups.  If people squirm to think some ape-like primate was in our evolutionary ancestry, how much more appropriate to squirm for a worm.

What about extreme longevity of pogonophorans?
It helps explain their slow evolutioary rate, and thus, their close molecular relationship to diverse groups of animals.

What is so important about abyssal life of pogonophorans?
The slow pace of life at great depths, due to great pressure, low food and oxygen input to the depths, paucity of life, probable absorption of fossil nutrients from sediments, and isolation from many surface extinction factors makes them living "fossil" ancestors. [Note: really old people may live to see great, great, great grand-children]

What has pressure to do with it?
It has not been demonstrated but it is obvious that reduced diffusion based metabolism is probably the missing factor in reduced community respiration noted at great depths.  I await someone making observations of reduced Brownian movement and/or diffusion of dyes at great depths.  It may be a factor in extended submersion time for deep-diving whales.  Water is ever so slightly compressed at great pressures- it may be the cause.

Could circulatory systems increase activity and decease longevity at great depths?
Perhaps.  But whales presumably shut down some less essential portions of theirs.

What about the great difference in early embryology of the groups alleged to be connected by the pogonoporans?
That has been discussed in other posts.  Also, observation of isopod development in Tasmania and Michigan gives some clues to different rates of development associated with ecological factors.  Abyssal life put a species survival premium on shifting from protostome to deuterostome development.

Joseph G. Engemann    Emeritus Professor of Biology,  Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo, Michigan      December 14, 2017

Monday, December 11, 2017



If you find anything I’ve written inspirational and/or of value, the credit goes to God.  I have been somewhat reluctant to extend that credit until recently for two reasons.  One, it sounded too boastful to think God had so favored me, and there are some scriptural passages that discourage excessive self-praise or taking the best seat.  And my mother had a frequent admonition that said “self-praise stinks”.  And two, I may have had self-doubts, but primarily the role God has had in my life was somewhat obscured in my mind until old habits had been well-established.

I do not know what made me so curious about things.  It might be that the early arguments with my brother helped me see that ideas I could not clearly express were as valid as his well-reasoned opinions.  The possibility that we were both wrong did not occur to me then; but sometimes, then or later, I came to the realization that we both may have been right in a limited way.  The consequence to me was that my thinking process may have been slowed down by applying too many “what ifs” to the subject at hand.

Applying alternative views when reading science research reports made me realize scientists often abandon old views prematurely when their research shows a statistically significant support for their hypothesis.  Perhaps individuals do the same thing when they understand exercise is good for their health and think they can exercise more and go back to smoking, or pigging out on sweets, or any other favorite vice.

My journey

Over seventy-five years ago on a pleasant evening I looked up at the Milky Way and with my limited knowledge of astronomy was extremely impressed with the immensity and age of the universe.  I was probably more impressed with God who had made it.  I had just been to confession and was moved that the creator of the universe was so good to me.  I am in awe of many wonders of nature, from the smallest to the largest, and especially humans.  I think it may be one reason I have been able to see evolutionary connections as part of God’s process of creation.  Jesus has said that no one knows the Father except himself and those to whom he chooses to know his Father.

I see the things others fail to see in evolution as evidence I have been granted some advantage because of my awe of God and his creation and love for all of us.  It seems to me that God has prepared me for this via some of the things I earlier viewed as misfortunes and other haphazard choices and/or events in my life.  It has not been a total “comedy of errors”, but I cannot attribute great wisdom to the haphazard direction of my life.

A neat and tidy life with thoughtful attention to career progress would not be likely to produce the eclectic bits of information and research needed to reconcile the annelid theory with the actual course of evolution.  I think Jesus knows this and has intervened to keep me going to help others see the validity of evolution and in particular, that scientists may see that belief in God is not only compatible with understanding evolution, but also may be a source of divine grace to help that understanding. 

The eureka moment of my most important contribution to science will be discussed in my next post.  The major role of asteroids, extinctions, and their interaction with deep sea ecology in determining major early events in evolution may be better appreciated by reading pertinent evolution posts in this blog.  I thought the eureka moment was to be expected in light of the peculiar collection of events in my academic/scientific life.  But I now think it was part of God’s plan for me as evidenced by a number of things.

First, a nudge to complete an evolution book that I had little accomplished toward in my first ten years of retirement.  The nudge was a diagnosis of myelodysplasia and the realization I would be lucky if I survived two years, about the time it took me to complete a first draft.  Some minor efforts to find a publisher convinced me I should put my work on an internet website.  My computer expertise had never been great in the days of punchcards, tape, and eventually disk storage of data (hurrah for thumb drives and if I could get over my fears, cloud storage). 

The second nudge, I was struggling with developing a website a few years after surgical removal of a large bladder-stone, (but no prostate ablation due to low platelet counts).  Following the worst episode of bleeding since the surgery I had a serious talk with Jesus, I let him know I was ready to die, but if he wanted me to set up an internet presence I would take a bleeding stop as the indication.  That was almost five years ago, I was able to set up this blog within a month or so, and have had no bleeding from the urogenital tract since. 

I have had serious bleeding from falls and hernia surgery, especially from the last nighttime fall a few months ago that may have been partially due to an episode of pneumonia.  So now, ten years after finding I had myelodysplasia, I am happy to see every day but starting to take them for granted.  The first day of golf in 2008 I was just soaking up the beauty of the day, spring flowers, fluffy clouds and all that I expected would be my last year.  Whenever the day comes, know that I appreciate the days I’ve had, family, friends, colleagues, and many others that have crossed my path.  And I hope that some of what I have written will benefit you.

So talk to Jesus,  He will hear you and do what is best for you.  Thank him.  Pray for others, they are his friends too.

Joseph Engemann   Kalamazoo, Michigan    December 11, 2017

Wednesday, November 8, 2017


 Jesus has been closer to me than I realized all of my life.  Unfortunately, I have not given him the recognition he deserves; and as I will be ninety late next year, if I make it, I don’t have a lot of time to make up for my omissions.  I have begun a few posts in the last few years that were almost introductory to a last post.  I have less premonition of such an event now, but the possibility of mental decline increasing made it seem like a good idea to write this now.  I may enlarge on topics in future posts, but I can’t be sure of that.

Who is Jesus?

Jesus is the second identity in the one Trinitarian God who took the human nature to help bring salvation to all people that accept him.  Having become truly human he gives us reason to believe that God really understands our problems.  He sacrificed his life for us to fulfill the will of the Father (at the same time being one with Him) to wipe away our sins that seem to us an impediment to entering heaven.  God’s love is all encompassing, and God’s Holy Spirit is always urging us to improve our love for God and all humanity.

Jesus was born of the virgin, Mary.  His life as the Son of God, a human, as well as his eternal life with the Father and the Holy Spirit, is more than I can explain; but I think it is reasonable when you consider that God is an infinitely powerful, eternal being that precedes the universe and time, both of which are parts of his creation.

Jesus, the Jew.

Born into the chosen people, Jesus was trained in the scriptures and followed the Jewish law and traditions under the guidance of his family in preparation for his brief earthly role as the Messiah predicted by Isaiah and other prophets.

He castigated teachers in the temple who interpreted the law so strictly for the people but, did not act the way they taught.  Jesus summed up the law of the Old Testament as the guiding principle in the New Testament, as love of God and neighbor.

Jesus and science.

It appears that Jesus does not try to teach us principles of science.  Instead he accepts the understanding of the culture of the time and uses it to teach things he is concerned about. 
In the previous post, I mentioned the nematode worm that is wound up on a stick to extract it from the skin of an infected person.  Jesus mentions it as a symbol of the way he would die on a cross (John 3:13-15) and references it later (John 8:28 and 12:32-33); the bronze serpent had been held up by Moses (in Numbers 21:6-9) as instructed by God.  In the telling of the story the worm became a seraph serpent depicted in bronze wound around the stick, converted to the symbolic crucifix, used by Christians as a reminder of Jesus’ death and love for us.  And it is converted to a symbol of the medical professions as the caduceus, usually showing the serpent wound around a winged staff; the medical version may be showing a connection to the method of extracting the nematode, or possibly gods of Greek mythology.  [Credit for my knowing the possible connection of the parasite being the fiery serpent of the bible goes to an unknown colleague of Dr. E. B. Steen, my colleague at WMU, who told me about him nearly sixty years ago.]

The three days before the resurrection of Jesus were prefigured by Jonah’s three days in a big fish.  Whether it was literal truth, but mistaking a whale for a big fish, or myth or legend of the Paul Bunyan sort, it provided a teaching moment linking old and new in the Bible.

Science and Religion

There are numerous bits with accuracy in understanding of science common to biblical days as presented in scripture.  Variation in germination and growth of plant seed dependent on soil and determining yield, predicting weather based on clouds on the horizon, the relative permanence of a dwelling built on rock as opposed to sandy soil, as well as understanding of human behavior, are among examples enriching the teachings of Jesus recorded by his disciple’s followers as well as some apostles.

The findings of science are all tentative, i.e., capable of being falsified by new data.  Of course, laws are not expected to yield to new interpretations, whereas hypotheses change, hopefully with declining frequency as new data is obtained and interpreted.  When it comes to spiritual things, science is incapable of making valid observations to either prove or disprove spiritual matters.

The findings of religion do not appear to have clarity of method in all cases.  Because the three dominant monotheistic views differ to increasing degree as we leave discussion of God and some basic principles, we will probably never reach complete unity even though we should strive for it.  But it is difficult for those believing all scripture should be interpreted literally to believe-- the scientific view of age of the universe, or fossils; the fiction incorporated in some bible stories and parables that were used to teach moral principles; the exaggeration common to speech and scriptures during biblical times.

Can we add separation of science and religion to separation of church and state as a desirable principle?  Maybe separation of science and state too?

My personal relationship with God

It has been a journey, many others have taken it, and it is open to you.  I have no doubt that  God has been with me all my life, even when I did not cooperate.  The same is true for you, just have patience.  In the meantime, I suggest a short daily reading of scripture.  Give God a chance.  

The apostle, John, had a close relationship with Jesus, and cared for Mary after the Crucifixion.  So John had opportunity for learning about Jesus' childhood from Mary and directly observing Jesus during his ministry.  So those constructing his gospel were able to faithfully give a clearer picture of what Jesus taught.  In John 13:34-35 we learn of the new law, "love one another".  We get a clearer picture of the Holy Trinity in John 5:19-30 and 5:14-17.  The equality of men and women is perhaps best shown in John's Gospel.

My love of the gospel according to John may be attributed to the fact it was the first one we studied the first year I joined as the only graduate student, along with some faculty and townspeople, in a study group led by Dr. Joseph Druse, an English Professor at Michigan State University.

Joseph Engemann      Kalamazoo, Michigan    November 8, 2017