OK to teach creationism “in context”, says Scottish Government


Angela Constance, Mike Russell’s replacement, November 2014, as Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning

Some of us had been wondering whether the replacement of Mike Russell by Angela Constance as Scottish Education Secretary would see any improvement in the Government’s “See no evil” approach to the problem of creationism in schools. We have not had long to wait. The answer is no. On the contrary, things suddenly seem to have got a whole lot worse.

Regular readers will know of the Scottish Secular Society’s Petition to the Scottish Parliament, in which we seek

official guidance to bar the presentation in Scottish publicly funded schools of separate creation and of Young Earth doctrines as viable alternatives to the established science of evolution, common descent, and deep time.

The Government’s response to the Committee, issued December 15, over the signature of Tim Simons, Head of Curriculum Unit, Learning Directorate, states that, on the contrary,

There is no intention, either stated or implied, for schools to limit classroom discussion and debate about complex, challenging or controversial topics such as those posed by Creationism. For example, within the context of the delivery of the “Experiences and Outcomes” in Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) Religious and Moral Education it is likely that concepts of creationism and evolution, will be discussed in a variety of contexts. Moreover, Creationism is not identified as a scientific theory or a topic within Curriculum for Excellence. Evolution however is specifically covered in the “Experiences and Outcomes” for the sciences.

Education Scotland’s guidance in the form of the “Principles and Practice” paper for science includes – among the purposes of studying science – that children and young people should “demonstrate a secure knowledge and understanding of the big ideas and concepts of the sciences.”

So now we know. Creationism is not, as we weird sciency types had imagined, a purblind reality-denying misinterpretation of an Iron Age account of a Bronze Age myth. No. It is “complex, challenging, or controversial”. But don’t worry. It will be discussed in a variety of contexts, but so will evolution, and while evolution will always be there in the science class, creationism will only be there if the teacher feels like it. (For the Scottish Secular Society’s immediate reaction, see here)

TruthBeTold (2)

This “textbook” was handed out at Kirktonholme Primary by an academically unqualified chaplain who had been in post, and involved in curriculum development for eight years.

But what about those of us who are worried about what happened at Kirktonholme, where children in primary school paid for by our taxes were told that evolution is a lie, the Earth is 6000 years old, radiometric dating is a trick concocted to deny Biblical truth, and that dinosaur graveyards are evidence of Noah’s Flood?

No need to worry. To quote again from the document,

No concerns have been expressed to Education Scotland staff, either from the RME or Science teams, on any of these occasions [consultative meetings] about the teaching of Creationism in Scottish schools. Also, no school or teacher has sought guidance on this matter from Education Scotland.

That settles it. Education Scotland never learnt that anything had gone wrong. Therefore nothing could possibly have gone wrong. Therefore Education Scotland does not need to examine its information-gathering procedures. The parents’ meeting at Kirktonholme, involving as it did the majority of school parents, and making headlines from the Daily Record to the Herald, was totally unnecessary, because nothing wrong had ever happened, because if it had, Education Scotland would have known about it. Silly us for ever thinking otherwise. For which reason Tim Simons is able to assure us that

I  can therefore confirm that there are no plans to issue guidance to schools or education authorities to prevent the presentation of Creationism, Intelligent Design or similar doctrines by teachers or school visitors. The evidence available suggests that guidance on these matters is unnecessary.

[Emphasis added] So now we know.

Time turned to stone, Part 2: The Giants’ Causeway; time as process

The Antrim Lava field shown within the British Tertialry Volcanic Province, itself part of the North Atlantic Lava Field. By Hazel Muzzy (Own work), via Wikimedia Commons.

An earlier post here described Siccar Point, where an 80,000,000 year time gap is present between near-vertical tilted strata, and their roughly horizontal overlay. This gap corresponds to the formation and subsequent erosion of fold mountains thrown up when Iapetus, precursor to the modern North Atlantic, closed. Today’s post is (mainly) about the Giants’ Causeway, part of the enormous lava field first produced when the modern North Atlantic began to open, and still growing at the Mid-Atlantic Ridge and, most spectacularly, in Iceland. Fragments of the initial outpouring were separated as the Eurasian and North American plates moved away from each other, and now can be found as far apart as Greenland and Denmark.

The Antrim Lava Field, of which the Causeway is part, was formed in three separate phases each consisting of many individual episodes. The most spectacular feature of the Causeway is provided by the second of these. Here, the lava cooled slowly, to generate a solid layer which stressed as it cooled, finally fracturing to give a complex array of columns, up to 10 metres high, and showing in places an almost regular hexagonal pattern. The lava of this second phase shows subtle chemical differences from the first, evidence of changes in the hot lava plume feeding the outflow. But what most excited me at the site was the existence of a band around 5 metres thick, between these columns and the lava beneath them. This layer is not a sediment, but a palaeosol, an ancient soil formed by in situ weathering of the top of the lavas deposited in the first P1000059phase.  Its nature is confirmed by the presence of occasional unweathered lumps, and there are occasional round scars (“Giants’ eyes”) in the exposed surface where these lumps have come away. Humid conditions are confirmed by the presence of valleys carved by streams, and filled in by the later lava flows. The chemical composition is like that of tropical soils, which have undergone extensive prolonged leeching under warm and wet conditions, with the most insoluble materials, iron and aluminium oxides, predominating towards the top, and there are traces of charred plant roots in the topmost layer. So here we have direct evidence of an extended interval, variously estimated at between 100,000 years and 3 million years, between the first and second phase of eruptions. After my visit, I discovered that this interbasaltic layer is found across the whole area of the Antrim Lava Field, and that there is another such layer between the middle and upper lavas. There are also extensive dikes, penetrating all the lower levels, caused by the eruption of the lava layers above. The entire coastline has been extensively reshaped and eroded over the intervening millions of years, and most dramatically during the Ice Ages, and subsequent exposure to the storms of the Atlantic. For more extensive descriptions, see here, p. 30, or here, and references therein.


Right: “The Chimneys,” columnar structures on skyline. Note additional columnar sructures to right and beneath.

Below: Interbasaltic layer beneath The Chimneys. Click and click again to magnify: note uneven upper contact surface between weathered layer and basalt, due to erosion of palaeosol, and holes (“giants’ eyes”) in the layer where incompletely weathered basalt chunks have been dislodged.P1000074





To summarise the sequence of events, we have

  • The formation of the lower basalts in 11 separate episodes
  • A pause of at least 100,000 years, during which the first interbasaltic layer formed by weathering, this weathering was accompanied by the erosion of stream valleys, and there were changes in chemical composition beneath the crust in the lavas feeding the eruptions
  • The formation of the middle basalts
  • Their slow cooling to give regular columns
  • More weathering, to give the second interbasaltic layer
  • Formation of the upper basalts, and finally
  • Further gradual processes of weathering, erosion, and exposure.

One would expect any politician to be proud to have within his constituency so dramatic a statement of the Earth’s history. Not so. Northern Ireland Assembly member Mervyn Storey, who is currently Chair of the Northern Ireland Assembly Education Committee, is vice-chairman of the Caleb Foundation. This body rejects the whole of modern geology as well as evolutionary biology, and claimed credit (if that is the correct word) for temporarily persuading the National Trust exhibit on the formation of the Causeway to give Young Earth creationism parity of treatment with scientific geology. The resulting outrage led to a letter writing campaign with its own Facebook page (which survives as a discussion forum), and eventual removal of the offending language.

I was amazed when I learnt what Storey considered to be the real cause of the Causeway; Noah’s Flood. Surely, I thought, even he would be aware that basalts had an igneous rather than an aqueous origin. It was only later that I learnt of the Flood Geology version of  creationism. According to this, the year of Noah’s Flood was accompanied by a catastrophic remoulding of the entire planet, including dizzying motions of the continents, and massive outpourings of lava. (No matter that there is absolutely nothing in the Bible to suggest anything of the kind.) This is why the creationist literature is full of attempts to revive the long-dead conflict between catastrophism and uniformitarianism. As I mentioned in my last post, T. H. Huxley had pronounced the obituary on this conflict in 1869, but I do not think that people like Melvyn Storey pay much attention to Huxley.

Storey also managed to grab a few headlines in 2009, the year of the bicentenary of Darwin’s birth and of the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species. The Ulster Museum mounted a special exhibition celebrating this, and Storey publicly threatened the Museum with litigation, for violating equality laws. As he put it in an interview with the Guardian,

In the past, when I have written to the museum about necessity to show the public an alternative to Darwin’s theory (and let’s stress it is still only a theory), they have been quite dismissive.

They could be subject to a legal challenge under equality legislation within Northern Ireland if they chose to ignore alternative views that many people here in the Province believe in.

This takes us to the heart of the matter. Equality legislation is about how people are treated as a result of group membership, rather than as individuals. Denial such as Storey’s is based not on reason or religion, but on his own group loyalty. Northern Ireland, notoriously, is inhabited by two rival tribes. One tribe is overwhelmingly Catholic, accepts the facts of evolution and an ancient Earth, and has traditionally sought to be ruled from Dublin. The other, to which Storey belongs, is biblical infallibilist Presbyterian, believes that the world must have been made in six days some 6000 years ago because God said so, and is fiercely insistent on being ruled from Westminster. If Storey were to accept the scientific evidence, that would mean letting the requirements of truth override the requirements of tribe, which is unacceptable.

IMG_0127And finally, time as sequence of events. I show here a photograph of a pebble, collected on the beach at Benalmadena, in southern Spain. This is a geologically interesting area because that is where the African plate moving northwards presses against the Eurasian plate. Around the rim of the pebble, especially at 2 o’clock and 6 o’clock, you can see a hint of separate layers. These are not strata, but caused by the lining up of tiny crystals in the rock under pressure. The pebble is crisscrossed with white lines (quartz, carried there in superheated water) and pinkish lines (the same, but contaminated with iron) in various directions. The thickest of these pinkish lines runs more or less from top to bottom of the image, and it is easy to see that this line defines a fault, with the rock material having yielded and been pushed upwards on the left-hand side. Thinking about how the lines cross each other, it is clear that the pebble has undergone at least two separate episodes of intrusion by white quartz, and two by pink quartz, the more recent of these corresponding to the fault formation. That’s four separate events, involving at least two separate sources of quartz-bearing fluid, after the rock had already formed and then been subjected to enormous tectonic pressure, but before this particular piece was detached, to be worn down in the water and eventually deposited on the beach.

As Yogi Berra said, you can see a lot just by looking. And one thing you can see, if you are prepared to look, is that it takes millions of years to make a pebble.

I thank the Giants Causeway Visitors Centre. Photographs by the author. An earlier version of this post appeared on 3 Quarks Daily

Introduction to Intelligent Design, Alastair Noble (review)

Summary: a doctrine that doesn’t deliver, the usual rhetorical tricks, begging the question, ignoring the evidence, distorting the science, and leaving all the work still to do.

I promised friends I would review this, so here it is.  Fortunately, a paragraph by paragraph review has already been carried out by my BCSE colleague, Dr Robert Saunders, Reader in Molecular Genetics at the Open University, so I can be brief.

A doctrine that doesn’t deliver

NoblePamphletThis pamphlet is indeed a worthy introduction to what now goes by the name of Intelligent Design. Quote mining, baseless claims, ignoring of established facts, repetition of long exploded arguments, and, at the heart of it all, a purported explanation of phenomena that proves on examination to explain nothing. All as a thinly disguised excuse to discard what we actually know about deep evolution and, in the ID movement on this side of the Atlantic at least, about deep time.

Now to detail. First, the virtues of this pamphlet. It is short; the text runs to less than 16 pages. It clearly and undeniably exemplifies the logic, and rhetorical devices, of the contemporary Intelligent Design movement. despite a £2 pricetag, it cost me nothing, having been given away at Dr Noble’s recent talk at Al’ Furqan Masjid Community Hall in Glasgow, organised through Scotland’s Interfaith Council (a charity that receives public funds). And it contains three arguments with which, as Dr Noble might be surprised to learn, I agree. I agree with his claim that we do not know the origin of life. I also agree that that science should not restrict itself a priori to natural causes. In my only professional level publication on the philosophy of science, I argue that, on the contrary, our preference for natural causes is based on experience. And I also agree with Dr Noble that the multiverse hypothesis is highly speculative, that we lack the means to test it, and that fine tuning continues to present an interesting challenge.

Next, everything else. Note that what follows applies to the 2013 print edition. Online and earlier versions may differ; I have not checked.

The usual rhetorical tricks

Problems start in the first paragraph. About the Author describes Dr Noble as “a professional adviser to secondary school teachers.” This is disingenuous. He is the Director of the Centre for Intelligent Design, not a disinterested author. But that’s a small matter.

We rapidly move on to the now traditional list of Great Scientists who believed in an Almighty Creator. And so they did. So, as I have explained here and here respectively, did James Hutton, originator of our modern concept of deep time, and, at the time when he wrote On the Origin of Species, Charles Darwin (Autobiography p. 93). So do many distinguished contemporary evolutionary biologists, ranging from the Evangelical Francis Collins to the Catholic Ken Miller, whom I will be mentioning again in this review. I wonder why the ID crowd never talk about any of these.

Then the next traditional feature, the Mined Quote. So we have Einstein, although Noble is surely aware that Einstein regarded belief in Noble’s kind of God as infantile. We even have what Michael Denton wrote in 1985, ignoring the fact that his views had changed dramatically by 1998. And of course the claim, which has been around since the 1920s, that more and more scientists are abandoning naturalistic evolution in favour of supernatural processes.

Next, the key assertions, on which the entire theory (if that is not too kind a term) depends. The first assertion is that complexity is evidence of design; the second and third, discussed below, are that information can only arise through the operation of an intelligence, and that some biological functions are “irreducibly complex” and thus could not have arisen through evolution. The first assertion runs something like this: we accept that complex artefacts are designed, and hence can infer that biological complexity likewise involves design. Expressed as a syllogism

Safety razors (Noble’s example) are complex, well adapted to function, and designed.

Living things are complex and well adapted to function.

Therefore living things are designed.

This is essentially Paley’s argument, which Darwin himself found impressive as an undergraduate (Autobiography, pp. 59, 87). However, the entire point of natural selection is that it explains how living things can become well adapted to function, without the intervention of a designer, and the entire history of life is a story of how this has happened. ID’s immediate appeal to a principle of design rules out at a stroke everything that has been gained by two centuries of investigation.

Begging the question

“Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge: it is those who know little, and not those who know much, who so positively assert that this or that problem will never be solved by science.” (Descent of Man, 1871)

To bolster his claim, Noble repeatedly asserts that random change cannot generate what William Dembski has called “complex specified information”, and even goes so far as to say (p. 9) that “We know that information can only arise from prior intelligence”. He admits that evolution can function up to a point, which he calls “microevolution”, but (p. 28) makes a bizarre assertion that “Microevolution necessarily involves an overall reduction in the amount of genetic information.” This is false. Some information may be lost when less fit variants within a population tend to die out, but we know that information content is being continuously replenished by mutation, at the same time that it is being winnowed by selection. All this was worked out almost a century ago, with the development of population genetics, while Dembski’s specific probability arguments crumble in the face of a recent theoretical analysis  of the time required for complex information to evolve under natural selection.

Ignoring the evidence

Fig. 6.

Cryoelectron tomography reveals the sequential assembly of bacterial flagella in Borrelia burgdorferi,Xiaowei Zhao et al., PNAS 110, 14390–14395, 2013

Next, the appeal to specified, or even irreducible, complexity, and Noble asks us to consider the eye, the ear, and that old standby the bacterial flagellum. Here, Noble actually states that ID would fail if “there is a clear step-by-step evolutionary pathway with all the intermediary stages to a bacterial flagellum or similar irreducibly complex structure which can be generated by mutations alone.” If by “mutations alone” he means mutations without selection, he is asking for something that reality does not offer. If he means an account of how the bacterial flagellum could have emerged from earlier structures, this was famously presented at the Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School Board trial, where Ken Miller testified on this very point (here, pp. 12 on; for more on Miller on the flagellum see here). If Noble then complains that that account does not include a historically reliable account of all the intermediate stages, he has missed the entire point of his own argument. Irreducible complexity, if it means anything, means that the structure could not possibly have emerged through naturalistic evolution, and Miller’s testimony readily explains how it could.

Distorting the science

There are other minor absurdities. Noble suggests that the fact that water is a liquid depends on tiny variations over and above the general rules of chemical bonding. As a chemist, he should know better, since the “hydrogen bonding” that holds H2O in the liquid state is a consequence of the same set of rules that makes the closely related substance H2S a gas. He also claims that complex life requires the moon to be exactly the right size and right distance, otherwise Earth’s axis would become unstable. I am mystified, unless he is running together two separate claims, one (plausible) regarding the stabilising effect of a satellite, and the other (ridiculous, but taken seriously within the ID community) that regards us as privileged because we are on a planet where we can observe both total and annular eclipses. And like the rest of the ID community, he misinterprets the ENCODE project, which showed that 80% of the human genome is biochemically active. We are invited to infer that DNA is perfectly designed and free of junk. But consider the “onion test“; in brief, an onion contains five times as much DNA in each cell as a human; does anyone imagine that it contains five times as much complexity?

And leaving all the work still to do

Finally, my most severe criticism of ID, which I have already stated here very briefly. It doesn’t answer the question. For a safety razor to come into existence, we need, not only design, but fabrication. And when we come across any natural feature that requires explanation, invoking ID merely leaves us two (or, if the use of ID involves rejecting naturalistic evolution, three) problems for the price of one. We have the problem of accounting for all the evidence for evolution by trial and error tinkering, combined with natural selection and genetic drift, ranging from biogeography to developmental embryology to anatomical (and now molecular) phylogeny, and much much more. We have the problem (although I suspect that for Dr Noble this is not a problem at all) of specifying the nature, provenance, and motivation of the designer (or Designer). And finally, worst of all, we still don’t know how it happened. Paley’s watch implied, not just a watch designer, but a watch assembler, a parts manufacturer, a toolmaker, a metallurgist… Unless the Designer just wills complete structures into being, in which case there’s no point even trying to do the science.

In short, this pamphlet delivers what it promises to, but the doctrine that it is promoting does not. Dr Noble repeatedly and sincerely asks us to open our minds; he is unaware that ID is an invitation to close them.

Glasgow’s Intelligent Design Director has ”open mind” on age of Earth

Al Furqan Mosque, Glasgow, in whose Community Hall Dr Noble spoke last Friday (November 28) on ‘Intelligent Design: Myth or Reality?’

See how many errors of fact and logic you can find in what Dr Noble, Director of Glasgow’s own Centre for Intelligent Design, said when my friend and Scottish Secular Society colleague, Garry Otton, asked him about the age of the Earth. This was on the occasion of his visiting a mosque as part of the activities of Scotland’s Interfaith Council, which receives £9,000,000 a year of taxpayer money. I offering him  space to reply, but he tells me that “I really don’t think this kind of speculative trivia deserves a considered response.”

Dr Noble said that the scientific consensus is about 3 billion years old, but there is a lot of uncertainty about all scientific things and some think the Earth’s only thousands of years old. He thinks the Earth might be old, but human beings might be “much younger than most scientists would accept”. A geologist has shown him a piece of rock, dated as 300 million years old, but containing a seam of coal carbon-14 dated at 40,000 years. And carbon dating only goes back to around 50,000 years, so [he said with heavy emphasis] “the error is not in the date of the coal.” All methods depend on judgements about initial conditions that we have no way of knowing. The scientific consensus can be very arrogant, so he doesn’t have a serious problem with an old Earth, but is not completely convinced.

Here is my list of errors; let me know if you spot others:

First, and least important, that number, 3 billion years. It should of course be around 4. 5 billion years.

From the fact that carbon-14 is useless beyond 50,000 years, Dr Noble infers that the error is “not in the date of the coal.” The exact opposite is true. The 50,000 limit is the limit of the method, showing that it cannot be used for more ancient deposits.

Actually, it has long been known that ancient coal cannot be dated by carbon-14, because it gives spurious and erratic young(ish) ages, between 20,000 and 50,000 years. This has thwarted attempts to use it as a standard background (see e.g. this 1939 paper). One percent contamination by contemporary material of the area sampled will reduce the apparent age to less than the 40,000 years that Dr Noble quotes, and other potential problems include the presence of modern bacteria (well established by 1931) and carbon-14 generation in the coal from the nitrogen-14 present, as an indirect effect of the radioactive decay of heavy elements in the coal.

I don’t know where Dr Noble got his numbers from, but they are identical with those quoted in a 2002 Talkorigins article, which discusses and dismisses the alleged anomaly. A fuller and more recent critical analysis of claims of detecting carbon-14 in ancient materials  can be found at http://www.asa3.org/ASA/education/origins/carbon-kb.htm#22 (ASA in this address stands for American Scientific Affiliation, an organisation of Christians who reject attempts such as Dr Noble’s to discard the plain science of evolution and an ancient Earth; the author, Kirk Bertsche, holds a Ph.D. for his work on radiocarbon methods, and an MA in Exegetical Theology from Western Seminary, Portland, Oregon).

As for our judgments about initial conditions, we can check these in at least four separate ways. Firstly, careful mineralogy, picking out well isolated samples or even well-defined individual crystallites. Secondly, available since the 1940s, what are known as isochron methods, which use non-radiogenic isotopes as internal markers. Thirdly, SHRIMP (sensitive high resolution ion microprobe) methods, available since 1980, which allow assessment even of selected regions within crystallites, giving valuable information about thermal history and element mobility; I have a friend who does this for a living. Finally, the good agreement of disparate methods (this was mentioned to Dr Noble) provides cross-validation, and the rare occasions when this does not occur (for example in rocks with anomalously young potassium-argon ages) are themselves highly informative (in this example, regarding subsequent heating episodes). Radiometric Dating, A Christian Perspective, by Roger Wiens,  principal investigator of the Mars Curiosity Rover’s chemical laser analysis team, gives an excellent perspective on this and other alleged problems.

It is just not true that there is a lot of uncertainty about all scientific things. There is no real uncertainty about the age of the Earth, any more than there is real uncertainty about the existence of the atoms of which it is composed. Dr Noble himself would be very upset if I were to allege that there is a lot of uncertainty about the abstruse area of inorganic chemistry in which he obtained his own Ph.D. over 40 years ago.[1] And yes, we should keep an open mind, but not so open that our brains fall out.[2]

So how did Dr Noble, who evidently still thinks of himself as a scientist, come to make such a concatenation of elementary errors? I would suggest confirmation bias, selecting evidence that supports a view already adopted for very different reasons. And in this case, that view is identified by his wish to take seriously the possibility that human beings might be “much younger than most scientists would accept”. Dr Noble belongs to a church that believes in the “entire trustworthiness” of Scripture, and perhaps he looks kindly on the idea that human beings were specially created in the past few thousand years. But if this is the case, the biological science that shows we are sister species to chimpanzees, and the Earth science that dates undeniably human skulls back to more than 100,000 years ago, must be denounced as unreliable. The rest follows.

Added note: Some commentators have inferred that Dr Noble is a six-day creationist. I, however, interpret his careful distinction between the age of the Earth and the age of humanity a showing a more broad-minded perspective than that, one which also grants credibility to day-age and gap versions of creationism.  Here day-age accepts the order of events in Genesis, but allows that each “day” may refer to an era. “Gap” allows geological tme in between Genesis 1:1 and Genesi 1:2. Both were originally attempts by conservative theologians to accommodate biblical literalism to early 19th century geology, and both, crucially, accept a historical Eden a few thousand years ago, and separate creation of kinds. I deliberately chose impeccably Christian sources for the geological background, to highlight the possibility that Dr Noble’s hermeneutics may be as selective as his geology.

1] The Preparation and Properties of Tungsten Hexafluoride Derivatives, Glasgow, 1970.

2] For the history of this phrase see here.

Charles Darwin through Christian spectacles

Paul Braterman:

The spectacles are not mine, but those of my good friend Michael Roberts. For what it’s worth I think he underestimates Darwin’s attachment to religion. In his Autobiography (not intended for publication) Darwin says that when he was writing On the Origin of Species, he considered it impossible to conceive of this woderful Universe as the product of mere chance, writing “I feel compelled to look to a First Cause having an intelligent mind to some degree analogous to that of man, and I deserve to be called a Theist.” And he attributed his later agnosticism to doubt as to whether a mind evolved through natural selection was capable of grasping such lofty matters. (A doubt shamefully misrepresented by Plantinga, as I have shown elsewhere, for his own self-serving reasons)

Originally posted on Peddling and Scaling God and Darwin:

CHARLES DARWIN (1809-1882)

February 12th 2009 saw the bicentenary of Darwin’s birth. Along with Isaac Newton he was one of the greatest British scientists, though his science is still controversial. To some he was a great scientist and to others the devil incarnate!


He was a quiet family man, whose life was marred by illness. He was born into an affluent home in Shrewsbury and went to Cambridge to study for the Anglican ministry. In 1831 he was invited to join the Beagle to sail round the world. That changed his life and the course of science. On that voyage he was more interested in geology and only later “moved” over to biology.

Darwin learned his science at both Edinburgh and Cambridge and some of his student notes survive. His family was scientific and as a teenager he had a well-equipped chemistry lab in an outhouse at the Mount

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Biblical literalism as blasphemy

If the biblical account of creation is literally true, then the creator is maliciously lying in the great book of nature, which plainly says otherwise. If it is not literally true, then literalists are in error in their hermeneutics. So literalists have a choice; admit their hermeneutics are mistaken, or call God a malicious liar.

I approach this entire area with diffidence. I was at one time a believer, but always regarded literalism as bone-headed on internal evidence (Maimonides, of course, had made the same point nearly 900 years ago). I am prompted to post this comment because believers whom I respect have found it helpful, and because I regard all those committed to accepting the evidence of things seen as natural allies, however much we may differ on things unseen. I therefore wish to distance myself from those, at both ends of the spectrum, who regard the most bone-headed versions of the Abrahamic religions as for that very reason the most authentic.

The Evolution of Creationism in Britain (Michael Roberts), + press coverage update

Paul Braterman:

The 2006 edition of Numbers’ book is an update of the original referred to in the opening paragraph. I would also draw attention to Scientists Scientists Confront CreationismConfront Creationism, Petto and Godfrey, eds, 2007, in which Numbers covers the same material in a more manageable 27 pages, and includes valuable essays by Massimo Pigliucci, Eugenie Scott, Brent Dalrymple and others on the historical, scientific, philosophical and pedagogical context.

Meantime, press coverage of the Scottish Secular Society petition seeking “official guidance to bar the presentation in Scottish publicly funded schools of separate creation and of Young Earth doctrines as viable alternatives to the established science of evolution, common descent, and deep time” continues; additions since I first posted on this on November 21 are

Herald 22 November:   David Andrew Robertson, Moderator-designate of the Free Church of Scotland, accuses us of anti-religious paranoia

Herald 23 November:  Scotland’s culture war: secularists and church head-to-head. A wide-ranging review by Judith Duffy.

Herald 24 November:  Unnamed EIS spokesperson(s) condemn our petition. Herald reporter once again confuses the teaching of separate creation (the subject of our petition) with the idea of God as Creator, discussion of which which we explicitly defend.

Herald 25 November: “I think most of us have had enough of the aggressive and perverse campaign against free speech by the Scottish Secular Society” – Rev David Fraser; “Our leaders need follow the robust example of the EIS and defend the rights of the majority for the expression of their faith across the spectrum of school subjects”

Herald 26 November Letter attacking Dvd Fraser’s defence of creationist teaching

Herald 27 November: letters. Among other things, corrects Rev David Fraser, states “The EIS position is that teachers can be trusted to conduct themselves professionally without the need for legislation.”

Herald 28 November: Letter, Hugh McLoughlin, says we don’t explain what we mean by creationism, invokes European Convention on Human Rights

Herald 1 December: Letters; Bob Downie reiterates support for keeping religin, science separated. Garry Otton repeats scope of petition.

Originally posted on Peddling and Scaling God and Darwin:

Over twenty years ago Ron Numbers published his excellent book The Creationists. There he traced the roots back to the Seventh Day Adventist in the late 19th century and not before.  The book dispels many myths about creationism but many still hold these myths and assume that creationism was the position of Christians until challenged by scientists.

A few years in the magazine of the Geological society of America  GSAToday Dave Montgomery of Seattle gave an excellent short account of the history of Creationism. http://www.geosociety.org/gsatoday/archive/22/11/pdf/i1052-5173-22-11-4.pdf It is well worth using as a summary. Following all recent scholars like Ron Numbers[1] he traces the roots of YEC to about 1900 in the Seventh Day Adventist church, rather than presenting the view that it is a re-incarnation of 17th century ideas. He rightly emphasises that Calvin and Steno were “young earthers” due to limited knowledge rather than a doctrinaire stance.


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British Creationism as a problem in 2002 (Michael Roberts); still all too relevant

Paul Braterman:

Michael Roberts: A mixture; geologist, Christian, priest, cyclist, mountaineer, heretical environmentalist(i.e. a Bright Green) , retired, historian of science and a few other things. Oh, and I don’t like creationism!

A historical, scientific and doctrinal skewering. Over a decade old but still, alas, as topical as the day it was written. The epidemiology and manifestations of that 20th century plague, mendacious pseudoscientific creationism, Young Earthism, and evolution denial.

Originally posted on Peddling and Scaling God and Darwin:

I make no apology for this being over a decade old as it was written in response to the problems at Emmanuel College Gateshead in 2002. Most of the issues remain with the same perpetrators.



Monkey Business at A State School

Early in March 2002 the story broke that Emmanuel College, a state–funded Christian City Technical College in Gateshead, Newcastle on Tyne was teaching secondary school children that the earth is only 10,000 years old.  Richard Dawkins and Steve Jones, were quick to condemn the school and some in the Church of England have joined in.

The school has had glowing OFSTED reports and excellent GSCE examination results and is partly funded by the millionaire car–dealer Reg Vardy.  It has high standards of discipline, a strong Christian ethos and seems to be everything parents want from a school However their teaching…

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Creationism petition Scotland; press coverage to date; your help still needed

MSPs on Holyrood’s Public Petitions Committee heard that some religious groups are waging a ‘campaign of disinformation’ in the classroom

Updated November 29

If you as parent, teacher, or student have come across examples of separate creation or a young Earth being presented as scientifically credible (or, worse, as true) in Scottish public schools, please let me know (details in confidence) and if you are willing to go public please write to petitions@scottish.parliamment.uk citing petition PE01530

Petition site and comments: http://www.scottish.parliament.uk/gettinginvolved/petitions/creationismguidance

Spencer Fildes, petitioner, on Good Morning Scotland 11 Nov 2014

BBC recording of hearing; Spencer Fildes and Paul Braterman give evidence to Public Petitions Committee 

7 Nov Scotsman; Bid to ban creationism is militant atheism:  Campaigners bidding to ban schools from teaching creationism in science lessons are “militant atheists” who want to impose their own views on youngsters and discourage questioning, a church leader has claimed. Reverend David Robertson…

Free Church of Scotland of Reverend David Robertson, who has claimed that campaigners bidding to ban schools from teaching creationism in science lessons are

Free Church of Scotland of Reverend David Robertson, who has claimed that campaigners bidding to ban schools from teaching creationism in science lessons are “militant atheists”. Picture: PA

(Interestingly, when preaching to Ken Cunningham, of whom more below, and Alastair Noble at Cartsbridge Evangelical Church, the Reverend shows full awareness that many of us are religious believers. Maybe he takes the Ninth Commandment more seriously when he is actually in church.)

11 Nov Aberdeen Evening Express; [Glasgow] Evening Times MSPs warned on schools creationism 

11 Nov STV News Teaching of creationism in schools ‘cannot be ignored’, MSPs told

Herald 12 Nov Religious extremists infiltrating schools:  This otherwise excellent article includes the statement “Creationism is the belief that the universe and living beings originate from acts of divine creation.” Not in this context. Our petition specifically refers to separate creationism is opposed to the established science of evolution. Although our opponents pretend otherwise, it has nothing to do with religious or philosophical positions regarding creation as a whole.

TESS 14 Nov 2014 Schools are being infiltrated by cults, say secularists

NCSE ([US] National Centre for Science Education] News 12 Nov Update from Scotland

Christian News, November 17, objects to banning the teaching of biblical creationism as fact (I continue to be amazed at the arrogance of those, like the authors of this article, who claim a monopoly of Christianity on the basis of their boneheadedly ignorant interpretation of its foundational documents.)

Herald  November 21, reports on Ken Cunningham, Secretary of School Leaders Scotland, and his submission in response to a request for comment from the Petitions Committee.  My comment: Not Head Teachers; one ex-Head [in consultation, he later claimed, with the Association’s presidential team, whoever they may be] speaking for all his members with no further apparent mandate from his Association’s membership. And Cunningham and Noble [Director of the Centre for Intelligent Design, whose plans to promulgate creationism are a major matter of concern to us] are not as reported both members of the Free Church of Scotland; they are Elders (Cunningham also Secretary) of the same small independent Church, Cartsbridge in Busby, with a total membership of around 250; a much closer association. Denholm messes up on “creation” again.

21 Nov, The Centre for Intelligent design warns those on its mailing list: Government to impose Scientism on our children (no link available). So now you know. The Centre regards evolution science and the study of the age of the Earth as forms of Scientism, whatever that may be.

See also commentary “Creationist Manoeuvres in the Dark” by Spencer Fildes, who has done more than any one of us to unmask the concealed connections.

Herald, November 22: In response to Spencer’s remarks to the Herald on November 21, the Reverend David Robertson accuses us of a McCarthyite campaign and anti-religious paranoia.

Herald 23 Nov:” Scotland’s culture war: secularists and church head-to-head.” A wide-ranging review by Judith Duffy.

Herald 24 November:  Unnamed EIS spokesperson(s) condemn our petition. Herald reporter once again confuses the teaching of separate creation (the subject of our petition) with the idea of God as Creator, discussion of which which we explicitly defend.

Herald 25 November: “I think most of us have had enough of the aggressive and perverse campaign against free speech by the Scottish Secular Society” – Rev David Fraser; “Our leaders need follow the robust example of the EIS and defend the rights of the majority for the expression of their faith across the spectrum of school subjects”

Herald 26 November Letter attacking Dvd Fraser’s defence of creationist teaching

Herald 27 November: letters. Among other things, corrects Rev David Fraser, states “The EIS position is that teachers can be trusted to conduct themselves professionally without the need for legislation.”

Herald 28 November: Letter, Hugh McLoughlin, says we don’t explain what we mean by creationism, invokes European Convention on Human Rights

Herald 1 December: Letters; Bob Downie reiterates support for keeping religin, science separated. Garry Otton repeats scope of petition.









I couldn’t not share this squirrel video

which I got from Michael Roberts who got it from Jerry Coyne’s WEIT (Why Evolution Is True), which remains one of my favourite books on the subject; I don’t know where WEIT got it from.

I’m told there’s a copyright smoothed out Daily Mail version; this is not it.

But some of the camera angles are amazing.

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