By T. Ryan Gregory. Reproduced with permission
Mutations occur as chance errors in replication. They’re just mistakes in copying. Most have no effect. Some are detrimental to the organism (or virus), a few may happen to be beneficial — this depends on the environment.
Three main evolutionary processes determine what happens to genetic variation once it arises (and these are independent of the process that generates new variation, namely mutation): genetic drift, natural selection, and gene flow.
We call different versions of a gene “alleles” and we can talk about the proportion of those versions in a population as “allele frequencies”. Genetic drift is a random change in allele frequencies that occurs by chance.
Genetic drift is basically sampling error, in which the genetic variation in a new generation does not accurately reflect what was present in the previous generation. The most obvious mechanisms of genetic drift are founder effects and population bottlenecks. (But see below about genetic drift being common in small populations generally). Founder effects occur when a random, non-representative subset of a population moves to a new location and founds a new population. The allele frequencies in that founder population won’t be the same as in the source population, and there will typically be less variation overall.
Population bottlenecks are sudden, severe declines in population size in which survival happens at random. So, for example, a drought or storm causes a major die-off and the individuals who survive were just lucky (rather than having traits that helped them survive).
Gene flow is movement of genetic variation from one population to another. The overall effect is to introduce new variation into an existing population (if the source population has different alleles) and to make two populations that exchange alleles more similar to each other.
When we think about the early stages of new species evolving, we generally are considering ways that gene flow is being blocked. Lots of gene flow means two populations are less likely to diverge genetically.
The final evolutionary mechanism is natural selection. In this case, the reason some individuals survive and reproduce better than others is *non-random*. It doesn’t occur by chance. It is specifically related to heritable traits that make survival and reproduction more likely.
This is where the concept of “fitness” is relevant. In evolutionary terms, fitness refers to the advantage in survival and/or reproduction due to heritable traits. Fitness depends on the environment. What is fit in one environment may be neutral or unfit in another environment.
There are different forms of natural selection, depending on what part of the distribution of traits is fit/unfit in the population: directional selection, diversifying (or disruptive) selection, and stabilizing selection.
Under directional selection, one extreme of the distribution is fit and the other is unfit. This drives the distribution of traits in a particular direction from one generation to the next.
For example, if the largest individuals leave more offspring on average than smaller individuals in each generation, then the average size will increase over time. Not because individuals start being born larger in response, but because more offspring are born of large parents.
In diversifying selection, it is the two extremes that are fit and the average traits that are unfit. This can cause a population to split into two. For example, if the smallest and largest individuals do well but the medium-sized are at a disadvantage.
Finally, in stabilizing selection the average value is fit and the extremes are both unfit. The result is that this prevents the distribution of traits from changing in the population because deviations from the current average are detrimental in that environment.
I have added an image from Wikipedia to show these three types of natural selection. A is the original distribution of traits, B is the new distribution. 1) Directional, 2) Stabilizing, 3) Diversifying selection.
There are many factors that affect these evolutionary mechanisms. Mutation rates can be high if there is weak quality control and repair of errors, or if there is some environmental factor (mutagen) that messes up replication.
It also matters how much replication is happening. Every time a genome is replicated, there can be errors. Lots of replication means lots of opportunities for mistakes to occur. (In multicellular organisms, only mutations in the germline are relevant in evolution, of course).
As to what happens to alleles, this depends on the environment as well as population size. Genetic drift, which is sampling error, is stronger when samples (i.e., populations) are smaller. Natural selection, which is non-random, is stronger when populations are large.
Whether an allele is fit or unfit (will be subject to non-random natural selection) or neutral (will evolve by random genetic drift) depends on the environment.
Natural selection and genetic drift can happen at multiple levels. The main one is, of course, among organisms within populations, but these can also happen within organisms. Cancer is an example of cell-level selection that is usually suppressed in multicellular organisms.
When it comes to viruses, there are two levels as well: within hosts and among hosts. Because viruses mutate so quickly (by chance, because their repair mechanisms are weak), there can be new variation arising within a single host.
Some mutants will do better within the host — that is, they will be better at invading host cells or will be replicated more quickly than other versions of the virus within a host.
So, there is natural selection within the host.Some mutants will do better at getting into new hosts. For example, maybe they form smaller aerosol particles and spread father when sneezed out. Or maybe they are in high concentration in the nose rather than deeper in the lungs, so they get shed more easily.
The mutant viruses that do best within a host are not necessarily the same ones that do better at infecting new hosts. In fact, a highly virulent version might be very effective at invading host cells but do so much damage that the host never spreads it to another host.
There can be a trade-off between virulence (replication within a host that causes damage to the host) and transmissibility (spread to new hosts). Which versions of a virus evolve depends on the mutations that happen to occur by chance replication errors and the outcome of genetic drift and natural selection both within hosts and among hosts.
Whether viral evolution involves increased or decreased virulence and/or higher or lower transmissibility depends on many factors. Number of replication events happening. Rates of replication errors. Selective pressures within and among hosts. Viral and host population sizes.
Virulence and transmissibility are not the same thing, and there may be trade-offs between them, but it’s also a concern that a virulent (damages or kills the host) virus can still be successful at the host population level if it is able to spread to many new hosts.
Viruses that are both highly virulent and transmissible will eventually run out of hosts to infect, but they can do great damage before that happens.
One of the many positive effects of reducing transmission (e.g., with vaccines, masks, etc.) is that this imposes a selection pressure for less virulence. If only versions of the virus that don’t incapacitate or kill the host manage to reach new hosts, then those are fitter. Reduced transmission also means fewer replication events happening and this means fewer new mutations.
A mild but highly transmissible version of a virus can spread quickly through a population and then fizzle out as hosts become immune, and many people seem to be assuming this will happen with Omicron, but that also means a lot of replication and new mutations.
The Omicron variant in particular has many, many mutations specifically in the spike protein, which is one reason it is so much more transmissible and escapes previous immunity. And this may now be the starting point for new variants.
It is possible that Omicron is milder (than Delta, at least) and that it will infect pretty much everyone and that this will be a step toward SARS-CoV-2 becoming endemic (like flu, requiring seasonal vaccinations).
But it is also possible that Omicron may undergo more chance mutations that make it more virulent as well as highly transmissible. Then it spreading rapidly will mean many hospitalizations and deaths before it runs out of hosts. We do know it is still evolving.
Viruses don’t want anything. They just spread to new hosts or they don’t, and replicate effectively in hosts or they don’t. Mutation, genetic drift, gene flow, natural selection. There are many factors we can’t control, but there are some that we can. We really ought to try.
An Immense World; How Animal Senses Reveal the Hidden Realms Around Us, Ed Yong, Random House/Bodley Head, June 2022
This book is an enormous achievement. A thrilling read, taking us into the Umwelt, or perceptual world, of numerous mammal, fish, reptile and insect species. A major work of scholarship, with over a thousand references to a 45-page bibliography, as well as accounts of interviews with numerous researchers and visits to their laboratories. An exploration of many ways of sensing the world, some of which we share, while others are beyond our imagining. The evolving interplay of perception and action, communication and deception, environment and response. And an enhanced insight into what it is like to be a bat, a bird, a blue whale, a beetle, or a human.
From the wealth of detail in the book, a consistent grand narrative emerges. Some physical process interacts with living matter. This is the raw material for sensation. Sensory abilities then shape a creature’s Umwelt, being developed according to the demands of its environment. But every perceiver is itself an object of perception to others, and we have colour displays and camouflage, smells as signals and identifiers, sound as communication to others and, by echolocation, back to the creature who generates it, and the same is true of other senses that we do not share, such as the detection of tiny electrical fields. Senses combine and even, we suspect, merge, and what we ourselves perceive is but part of an immense pattern. But the heedlessness with which we amplify our own signals disrupts this pattern, contributing to our destruction of nature, and we ourselves are the poorer for it.
Let me offer a few samples from the book’s wealth of detail.
Yong starts with taste and smell, two ancient senses that operate by direct molecular contact. It is not long before he surprises us. Snakes use their forked tongues to smell in stereo. Humans are poor compared with other mammals at detecting smells at low levels, but are rather good at telling different smells apart. No one knows how smell relates to chemical structure (contrast this with how seeing relates to the wavelength of light, hearing to frequency, or touch to pressure). As every well-trained dog-owner knows, smell is central to the Umwelt of dogs, but I would never have guessed that the same is true of elephants. And the molecules involved in smell include opsins, which are central to vision. As Yong puts it, in a way we see by smelling light.
It is sometimes said that dogs, and most other mammals, are colour blind. This is only half true; they have just two kinds of colour receptors, while we (like other apes, and our cousins the Old World monkeys) have three. The colours that we perceive arise from subtle interactions between these receptors. Thus some neurons are excited by blue cones but inhibited by red or green, while others are stimulated by red but inhibited by green. So the colours are we experience are the result of a kind of neuronal arithmetic, below the level of conscious awareness. I still feel surprise when someone superposes red and green beams of light on a screen, and I see the result as pure yellow. Our colour vision can be represented by a triangle, with red, blue, and green at the corners, and yellow halfway along one edge.
But hummingbirds, like many birds and reptiles, can see four kinds of colour; red, green, blue, and UV. If human colour vision can be represented by a triangle, that of a hummingbird is a pyramid. And while for us the overlap of red, green, and blue are enough to produce white, four kinds of sensor need to be activated to look white to a hummingbird.
Among humans, different individuals have slightly different sensitivities, and some women show a degree of four-colour vision, having inherited different pigments from the sites on their two separate X chromosomes that are responsible for colour vision. Words cannot convey this added perceptual dimension, but the fact that they really do have four-colour vision can be demonstrated by discrimination tests. (This by the way answers a philosophical riddle that intrigues me. How do I know that you are seeing colours the same way that I am? It turns out that there is a real chance that you aren’t.)
Many flowers that appear white to us are coloured in the UV, and appeal to insect pollinators with green, blue, and UV three colour vision. And UV vision evolved in insects long before there were flowers, so the flowers evolved the pigments to attract the pollinators. Thus the ability to see directly influences the evolution of what is there to be seen.
Temperature detection overlaps other senses. There are sensors that can detect hot or cold temperatures, but can also be stimulated in different ways. The sensor for painful heat can be activated, on the skin as well as in the mouth, by habanero peppers, while menthol feels pleasantly cool in the mouth or the smoker’s throat. Menthol also happens to be addictive.
The ability to detect heat at a distance is useful to species that suck blood, from bedbugs and mosquitoes to vampire bats. Ticks can detect body heat from up to 13 feet away, and common insect repellents work with them, not by interfering with smell, but by blocking the heat sensors. These sensors are in spherical pits on their legs, and the pits are covered by a film with a hole in it. So the sensors give directional information as well as detecting the heat source. Rattlesnakes and other pit vipers also have pits with a narrow opening, falling on a sensing membrane that carries around 7000 nerve endings. They can detect the presence and approximate direction of an increase in temperature of 0.001oC, which means that a viper can locate a rodent 1 m away. Information from the temperature sensing pits is combined with information from the eyes, so maybe for them the sense acts as an adjunct to vision, rather than on its own.
Touch organs can be modified for special purposes. The emerald jewel wasp paralyses cockroaches by stinging their brains, and has a touch sensor at the end of her sting to locate the exact location. A wide range of mammals, including the opossum, a marsupial, as well as rats and mice, use touch sensors at the base of whiskers to explore their surroundings several times a second. Since each whisker has its own connection to the somatosensory cortex, this builds up a map of the surroundings. So whisking, as it is called, is perhaps more like seeing than like touch. It would seem to be a very ancient trait indeed, since the last common ancestor of placentals and marsupials was back in the age of dinosaurs. The whiskers of seals are so shaped and angled as to minimise the forces on them as they move through the water, which would otherwise overpower the pressure waves caused by passing fish.
Sound detection is fast, precise, 24 hour, and useful for detecting predators or prey. Sound is also used in communication, as in the finding and assessment of mates. But mating calls come at the cost of giving away one’s location. There is a species of parasitic fly that has developed ears remarkably similar to those of the crickets it preys on, to eavesdrop on their mating calls. On Hawaii, which was once seriously infested by such flies, the crickets have fallen silent. Once again, the overlapping Umwelten of prey and predator drives evolution.
Surprisingly, the first insects were almost certainly deaf, since hearing has evolved separately among them at least 19 different times, on many different parts of the body, having in general been developed from organs that respond to vibration and pressure.
We can only detect parts of how animals use sound to communicate. Birdsong contains more structure than the human ear can resolve, unless it’s played back slowly. In fact, the structure within each note may be more important to the birds than the order that the notes are played in. Whales and elephants both use what we call infrasound, vibrations too low in pitch for our ears to hear, as a way of keeping in touch over long distances. Mice, however, communicate using ultrasound, frequencies too high for us to detect. The terms infra and ultra are arbitrary, relating to our own capacities, but since we are deaf to such sounds they were not even detected, let alone studied, until a few decades ago, and may be much more important in nature than we realise.
Echolocation in particular may be much more extensive than our knowledge of it, when it uses frequencies that our own ears cannot detect. Even bat echolocation, although suspected much earlier, was not clearly demonstrated until 1938. It enables bats to navigate and catch insects in complete darkness. This is an impressive feat; the bats need to generate short pulses of high-frequency sound, and then detect the direction and timing of the faint echo from a small moving target. Some bats can even tune their ears to respond to a frequency slightly different from the one they are emitting, and detect the movement of their prey using the Doppler effect. 
But moths are not merely passive prey. They have ears that can detect bat cries, and dodge and loop to evade capture. Tiger moths produce clicks of their own, which confuse the bats. Some moths even have long flexible tails at the end of their wings, which may also add to the confusion.
Infrasound echolocation by dolphins was detected in the 1950s, and since the 1960s the U.S. Navy has been training them to find sunken equipment and mines, and aiming to reverse engineer their abilities. Humans avoid walking into obstacles using echolocation, and some blind people have developed this to a high skill, building up a model of the world in their visual cortex, in much the same way that most of us do so using sight.
Darwin was puzzled by so-called electric eels, which use electric shocks to stun their prey. After all, evolution regards present organs as the result of a series of incremental improvements, but what use would the electric organ have been in its feeble first stages of development? It took a century to find the answer. Many fish possess a lateral line, sensitive to pressure, and in some cases this has been modified to detect electricity. This confers an obvious advantage, since any living thing moving through water generates tiny electric currents. And electrodetection gains in sensitivity and acuity when combined with the ability to generate one’s own more powerful electric field. So we have passive electroreception and active electroreception, just as we have hearing and the use of echoes. The cells that detect the electrical fluctuations are hair cells, basically similar to the same cells that detect pressure waves on the lateral line, or pressure oscillations in our own ears. Active electroreception operates in every direction, will work as well in cloudy as in clear water, and is so sensitive that some fish can be trained to detect the difference between a clay pot full of river water, and one also containing an insulating glass rod.
Passive electroreception is extremely widespread among vertebrates, being used by sharks, catfish, and salamanders, while the platypus has over 50,000 electroreceptors in its bill. Bumblebees can detect the electric fields that surround flowers, and it may well be that electroreception is much more common than we as yet realise among insects, equipped as many are with touch- and current-sensitive hairs.
Yong concludes his list of the senses with the ability to detect magnetic fields. This is a difficult area, if only because magnetic effects are extremely weak, and show subtle variations on a global scale in direction, intensity, and angle of dip relative to the surface. To complicate things further, no one even knows what the magnetoreceptor would look like or how it operates. Some bacteria grow small crystals of magnetite, and can distinguish North from South, but no one has managed to find similar structures in the birds and animals that are known to use magnetic fields as an aid to migration. One current theory invokes what are called radical pairs, molecules raised to high-energy states by the influence of light, but such states are short-lived, and I as a chemist would require a lot of convincing.
Senses interact. Mosquitoes are attracted by body warmth, but only if they can smell carbon dioxide. Electric fish that have learnt to distinguish shapes using their electric sense are then able to do so by sight, and vice versa. I have already mentioned how the mental maps constructed by blind people, who have learnt to navigate using echolocation, reside in the visual cortex. And finally, we need to remember that sensation requires discriminating between the signals that come to an organism from outside, and those that it generates by itself.
So all complex animals, including ourselves, perceive only a small part of the immense world of possible sensations, and construct their own Umwelt from the part accessible to their own senses. But we show brutal insensitivity in how we influence this world. We brighten the night sky and blur the distinction between the seasons, confuse forest insects with the sound from our machines, scatter huge amounts of material that must distract the sense of smell, and make the very oceans reverberate, so that whales navigating by infrasound end up stranding themselves in response to naval sonar.
And when did you last see the Milky Way?
Ed Yong’s earlier book, I contain multitudes: the microbes within us and a grander view of life, was a New York Times bestseller, and in June 2021 he received a Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Reporting for his writing on the COVID-19 pandemic
1] Red colour perception evolved by accidental duplication of the gene that codes for the green-sensitive receptor, followed by Darwinian selection for a new use – the ability to detect ripe fruit, or tender young leaves, against a green background. A nice example of how evolutionary change generates new information.
2] Yong does not tell us how we know this, and to do so would have required a chapter in itself. But, in brief, the methods involve cross-species comparisons, and, these days, the use of molecular biology to reconstruct family trees for the relevant genes. The simplest assumption is then that a trait prevalent in one particular clade was present in its last common ancestor.
3] This is the familiar increase in the perceived frequency of a sound wave when the distance between source and observer is decreasing. Here the decrease is in the length of the round trip, from bat to target and back again, but with further fine tuning from the motion of the prey, and even the flapping of a moth’s wing has a detectable effect.
This post first appeared in 3 Quarks Daily
The Ark Encounter, an evangelical theme park located near Williamstown, Kentucky, has welcomed between 4 million and 5 million visitors since its opening in July 2016. Hundreds of thousands more are sure to visit this summer.
This theme park boasts a re-creation of the story of Noah’s Ark from the Bible. As described in Genesis 6:14-16, God directed Noah to build this ark to spare eight humans and a male and female pair of every kind of creature from the flood that God was going to unleash on the world as a punishment for sin.
As scholars of fundamentalism and creationism, we have visited the Ark Encounter multiple times. We have also written a book, “Righting America at the Creation Museum,” about the ark’s companion site, the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky.
What we find particularly striking about Ark Encounter is that it is a tourist site devoted to emphasizing – with great specificity – the wrathful nature of God and the eternal damnation that awaits unrepentant sinners.
What is Ark Encounter’s argument?
According to Answers in Genesis, the fundamentalist organization that launched Ark Encounter, and its CEO, Ken Ham, Ark Encounter is a centerpiece of AiG’s mission to “expose the bankruptcy of evolutionary ideas and bedfellow: a ‘millions of years old’ earth (and even older universe).”
So, according to AiG, when Genesis 1 says God created the Earth in six days, it literally means six 24-hour days. Similarly, when the Bible says Adam and Eve were created on the sixth day and gives details about their descendants and how long they lived, this is interpreted as recounting real history. And all of this means that, according to AiG, the Earth is “about 6,000 years old.”
While scientists have estimated the Earth to be about 4.5 billion years old, AiG counters by claiming that radiometric dating is not reliable. Instead, they assert that the catastrophic biblical flood created all the geological formations that make the Earth look ancient.
Over the past few decades, this argument has become a doctrinal touchstone for many American evangelicals.
An enormous structure
We most recently visited the Ark Encounter on March 15, 2022. Measuring 510 feet (155 metres) long, 85 feet (25 metres) wide, and 51 feet (15 metres) high, the Ark Encounter is, to quote one visitor we overheard, “so huge!”
After purchasing tickets that cost US$54.95 per adult, we and other visitors boarded buses and made the ascent up a long hill. Getting off the bus, we walked to the Ark, keenly aware of how small we were in relation to this ginormous structure.
Inside the Ark, visitors walk through three enormous decks, encountering rows of clay food storage containers, burlap sacks and animal cages. They observe over 100 bays featuring placards and digital animations that, among other things, go far beyond the Bible to explain Noah’s training in shipbuilding, carpentry and blacksmithing. The same creativity applies to the various displays explaining how eight human beings on the Ark fed, watered and managed the waste of 7,000 or so creatures.
Visitors also walk through a life-size diorama of the plush living quarters of Noah’s family, where they learn about the skills, gifts and interests of Noah’s sons – details not included in Genesis. They also learn about Noah’s wife and his sons’ wives. The Bible never identifies these women by name, much less describes them. Nevertheless, the Ark gives them names, different ethnic complexions, biographies and even hobbies.
Notwithstanding the occasional placard acknowledging that designers have taken “artistic license” with these dioramas, we couldn’t help but notice how much of what is in the Ark is not actually found in the Bible.
But visitors to the Ark seem to embrace these dramatic additions to the biblical text. As religion scholar Paul Thomas observes in his new book, “Storytelling the Bible at the Creation Museum, Ark Encounter, and the Museum of the Bible,” the world created by the designers of the Creation Museum and Ark Encounter satisfies the evangelical longing “for a time and place governed by biblical principles, even if that idealized time and place … never really existed.”
A very angry God
AiG requires all Ark Encounter employees to affirm a 46-point faith statement. They must agree, for example, that “gender and biological sex are equivalent and cannot be separated,” modern understandings of “social justice” are “anti-biblical,” and all humans “are sinners” and “are therefore subject to God’s wrath and condemnation.”
This emphasis on the overwhelming wrath of God is perhaps the most noteworthy feature of Ark Encounter as a tourist site.
Genesis 7:16 states that, as the flood waters rose, God slammed shut the door into the Ark. Once shut, all the humans and animals on the other side of the door were doomed to drown.
According to a placard displayed at Ark Encounter, there may have been upwards of 20 billion people on Earth at the time of the Genesis flood, a number that would have included children and infants, not to mention the unborn.
Another placard asks, “Was it just for God to judge the whole world?” The answer: “Since He is the one who gave life, He has the right to take life. Secondly, God is perfectly just and must judge sin. Third, all have sinned and deserve death and judgment.”
Remarkably, Ark Encounter has placed a “keepsake photo” placard near the door that, in the Ark’s depiction, sealed the fate of all those on the other side. As we have witnessed every time we have toured Ark Encounter, happy visitors line up to have their photos taken in front of this door.
According to AiG, this ancient divine slaughter prefigures a future divine slaughter. As the Ark Encounter website puts it, “God will judge this wicked world once again, but this time it will be by fire … God always keeps His promises – judgment will come.” According to AiG, we can escape this fate by believing in Christ, but for the billions (past and present) who have not or do not, the result is “everlasting, conscious punishment in the lake of fire (hell).”
As historian Doug Frank makes clear in his 2010 book, “A Gentler God,” this understanding of a wrathful God is alive and well in American evangelicalism. Frank’s argument is supported by a 2014 Pew Research report that revealed that 82% of American evangelicals believe in a literal hell.
Millions of evangelicals visit Ark Encounter for all sorts of reasons, including, perhaps, its sheer immensity. That said, the message they get from Ark Encounter is clear and simple.
The wrathful God has determined that those who do not accept Jesus as savior, those who are resolutely on the wrong side of culture war issues like abortion and LGBTQ+ rights, will pay for their sin eternally.
Disaster has been averted at Imperial. But much damage has been done, the group appointed to implement the decisions taken faces an impossible task, and the process has aggravated the very problem that it was meant to address.
For months, as I described elsewhere earlier, Imperial College has been contemplating the possibility of dis-honouring T. H. Huxley, one of its founders, on the basis of early remarks that we would now condemn as racist, but did no more than express the general assumptions of his time and place. This despite the fact that Huxley was a lifelong opponent of all forms of discrimination, a fierce opponent of slavery at a time when many cultivated Englishmen were sympathetic to the Confederate cause, and clearly changed his views about race over time.
The President and the Provost have both been urging a whitewashing (if I can use this term) of the College’s history by such measures as removing Huxley’s name and bust from one of Imperial’s most prominent buildings. As I explained earlier, they attempted to accomplish this using a deeply flawed process. A History Group lacking in any higher level expertise in Huxley’s own areas of biology and palaeontology was set up, with the College archivist restricted to a consultative role, as was the Imperial faculty member best qualified to comment on historical matters. Two outside historians were consulted, but their areas of expertise did not really include Huxley.1 Adrian Desmond, Huxley’s biographer, was consulted but as I documented in my earlier article, his unambiguous vindication of Huxley was completely ignored. In October (revised version November), the History Group’s report recommended that Huxley’s name be removed from the Huxley Building, and his bust on display there relegated to a museum.
A request for comments on this report drew over 200 submissions. Despite earlier commitments, the Provost refused to publish these, alleging confidentiality, and instead a summary was prepared by two outside facilitators from Goldsmith College’s Department of Social, Therapeutic, and Community Studies, neither of them biologists nor historians. As might be predicted, this summary was obviously bad, suppressing all quantitative information about the general thrust of the submissions and giving equal weight to views that did, or did not, reflect historical reality. This summary was then made available to the President’s Board, a group of senior advisers to the President, with whom the final decision rested. Board members also had access to the full submissions, but as we now know these add up to around 90,000 words, and one wonders how many people at such a level of seniority could possibly have found time to read them all.
Fortunately, loud voices had been raised in protest both inside and outside Imperial, the tenor of a forum held to discuss the History Group report was unmistakable, and I know that at least some Board members were directly lobbied by academic staff opposed to the removal proposals. It may also be relevant that the President, a firm advocate of removal, is now in the last few months of her term of office, and has been further weakened by other controversies.
The board met on February 21, and an official account of its conclusions was published on February 25. According to this account, its main recommendations were as follows:
The Board committed to finding new ways to mark the impact and contributions of brilliant figures from underrepresented groups, having connections to Imperial, such as the Nobel Prize physicist Professor Abdus Salam , Dr Margaret Fishenden, who conducted seminal studies of combustion and heat transfer at Imperial , and Dr Narinder Singh Kapany, known as the father of fibre optics. This recommendation had met with widespread approval.
A working group has been established to implement these recommendations, and “To establish new ways for the Imperial community to continue to expose, engage with and learn from its history.”
The name and bust of TH Huxley will be retained, but put in context. This makes sense, provided the contextualising material comes from someone well informed about its subject matter. The submission to the History Group by Adrian Desmond, Huxley’s most noted biographer, would be a good start. The College will also consider a joint name for the building, linking Huxley to “a pathbreaking scientist from a Black, Asian or other minority ethnic background.”2 Here the working group faces a daunting challenge. There are very few scientists of any background whose names could be linked to Huxley’s without suffering by comparison, let alone if consideration is restricted to the underrepresented.
Similar recommendations made regarding commemoration of the Beit brothers, whose profits from mines in South Africa did much to finance the College, seem to me sensible although I have no expertise in this area. Specifically, the College will seek to direct its Beit scholarships to African scientists. Other de-naming recommendations seem to have been quietly dropped.
The Board also decided to release an anonymised version of the written submissions. This has the effect of showing the degree of distortion in the previously publicised summary. For example, the summary says that “Some participants felt such items [statues, busts, and historical artifacts] should be removed when possible as they are a daily reminder of enslavement and colonial legacy and not a reflection of the College current values.” In the full version, slavery (or slave, enslavement, etc.) is explicitly mentioned in 45 submissions. Two of these deal with a side-issue, the slave owner Sir Henry de la Beche. (Here the first version of the report was criticised for being too kind, but the matter had by then already been dealt with with at the Department level by removing his name from an award, renaming the geology society, and archiving his bust ) . Of the remaining 43, only 5 favour removing existing names or statues, 2 are ambiguous, and 36 are opposed to removal. 26 mention Huxley by name and all but twoof these oppose removal, with frequent mention of his enlightened attitudes and opposition to slavery. (It took me less than half an hour to establish all this, using simple word searching to scan the relevant submissions, which were generally quite unambiguous.)
Again, according to the summary,
Other [respondents] said they felt unwelcomed and rejected by Huxley’s links to eugenics, leading to feelings of marginalisation, disrespect, hurt and offence. Some that marking his legacy without this context had a negative effect on Imperial’s aspirations to equality and inclusion and its global standing.
This is flat out untrue.
By my count, 20 separate submissions mentioned eugenics. Of these, only one was in favour of renaming. 19 were opposed, and of these 18 mentioned Huxley by name, many pointing out that nothing in his writings could be said to support eugenics. As one respondent put it, capturing the general flavour of the responses, “taking down Huxley because his work contributed to eugenics is about as logical as cancelling Jesus because his name has been used to justify crusades.” Others also pointed out that to link Huxley to eugenics is unhistorical, since we can date the very term to Galton’s writing in 1883, some years after the work for which Huxley is chiefly remembered. (I would further add, since such charges are often raised by creationists against evolution science as a whole, that eugenics was deeply rooted in older beliefs2 about hereditary inferiority.
So how did the summary come to say what it did? Its authors, remember, were from Goldsmith College’s Department of Social, Therapeutic, and Community Studies, with no expertise either in history or in the relevant science. I must presume that, as non-experts, they wrongly imagined that the History Group spoke from a position of expertise, and allowed their perspective to be influenced accordingly. I emphasise this point because it helps explain the very real harm that this process has done to the College, and to the reputation of science in general.
Consider the History Group’s overall impact. To quote its own report,
The Group’s project was set up as part of a series of initiatives to address racial injustice. An important rationale for the project was to develop an understanding of how Imperial is perceived by a wide range of stakeholders, how this is influenced by its history (or perception of its history) and the extent to which this perception will hinder our ambition to establish a truly inclusive environment which allows all to flourish and to feel at home.
How well has the History Group succeeded in attaining these objectives? Not very. The recommendation to dis-honour Huxley achieved the rare distinction of being attacked both by the strongly Conservative Telegraph and the left-leaning Observer, sister paper to the Guardian. The Telegraph printed and re-echoed the letter of protest by 40 academics that the journal Nature had refused to publish. In the Observer , Kenan Malik, who himself studied at Imperial and is, for what it is worth, himself a member of a minority ethnic group, criticised the entire notion that real inequalities were being usefully addressed by such symbolic actions, while pouring scorn on a process that treated Huxley, an agent of scientific and social progress, in the same way as the slave trader Colston whose statue had been thrown into Bristol Harbour (or, I would add in the context of Imperial, the slave owner de la Beche discussed above). As Malik puts it,
Damning both equally as racists who do not deserve commemoration is to abandon historical evaluation for a crude mode of moral judgment.
The Times also gave sympathetic treatment to criticism of the history group report from within Imperial.
By the time the College’s decision was announced, Russia had invaded Ukraine, moving public attention away from this, as with so many other matters. The only newspaper accounts of the decision that I could find were in the Daily Mail online and, again, the Times.
Ethnic minority scientist’s name will be added to Imperial College building named in honour of Thomas Henry Huxley after claims that biologist who discovered birds were descended from dinosaurs was racist
Its bulleted summary states that the History Group had accused Huxley of ‘scientific racism’, while the full article reports academics’ rebuttal and praise of him as a role model.
The Times article, however, is extraordinary, not only restating the refuted claim that Huxley’s work had somehow led to eugenics, but describing him as a eugenicist himself.
Notice that this article appeared under the byline, not of a reporter, but of the Social Affairs editor. I can only surmise that it is playing a role in some wider agenda.
So, returning to the history group’s objectives, how will all this activity have affected “how Imperial is perceived” and the worthy “ambition to establish a truly inclusive environment which allows all to flourish and to feel at home”? Not, I fear, very well. The College has given us a shameful exhibition of poor scholarship, and besmeared the reputation of its founder. It created a false impression of impartiality and expertise in the setting up and naming of the History Group, thus enhancing the opprobrium it will attract from some for ignoring its recommendations. For those who, like the vast majority of historians, life science scholars, and respondents to the call for submissions, the accusations against Huxley were ill-informed and misguided, the exercise will leave them dismayed by the History Group’s recommendedations. For those, if there are any, who do really feel excluded and less able to flourish because of Huxley’s belief, in 1865, in a hierarchy of races, they will be dismayed that the Group’s central recommendation was not implemented, and will be feeling more excluded than ever. Who can blame them when the report itself and its Press coverage have given them so much cause?
One final irony. Within the UK at least, the biggest single cause of imbalances of power and education between groups is social class. Imperial itself is well aware of this problem, and includes this factor among others in its ambitious plans to widen access. What better role model, then, than a child forced by family poverty to leave school at age 10, who rose to the highest levels of accomplishment, whose scientific achievements continue to earn our admiration 150 years later, and who did more perhaps than any other person of his time to broaden educational opportunity? I give you
Thomas Henry Huxley
This article first appeared on 3 Quarks Daily, as an update of my earlier Intellectual Disgrace at Imperial College. As before, I thank numerous colleagues for discussions and relevant information, including Joe Felsenstein, Steve Hollenhorst, Nick Matzke, Andrew Petto, Betty Smokovitis, and members of Imperial’s academic staff. RCS Building image, Barabbas1312, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons. Bust of Huxley, photograph George P. Landau, via https://victorianweb.org/victorian/religion/agnos.html . Huxley sketch by his daughter, Marian, via Wikipedia
1] To be fair, there was some overlap with the other main target for reconsideration, the Beit brothers, major donors towards the College, whose wealth derived from South African mines. Imperial College has no history department at such, but the academic staff member best qualified to pronounce on historical matters was also relegated to a consultative role.
2] Pet peeve: I wish people would not say “minority” when they clearly mean “underrepresented”. Albert Einstein came from a minority ethnic background, and as a result had to flee his country of birth, but I do not think that is what the College has in mind.
As Michael says, this project is patronising, since it values Matauranga not for what it is, but for somethng that it is not. Such muddled thinking does nothing but harm to the admirable project of decolonising the curriculum
Exactly 40 years ago this December the hot topic in science was the trial over the teaching of Creationism in Arkansas. A bill had been passed a few months earlier to give equal time of the teaching of “Creation” and “Evolution” in schools. (Creation mean a 6 day creation some 6 -10,000 years ago according to a literal view of Genesis and Evolution meant an earth some 4.5 billion years old and humans evolving ultimately from a unicellular creature.) At first Creationists in America were rejoicing at their success, but soon forces were mobilised against them.
Soon the bill was challenged in the courts, with a court case running from 7th to17th December 1981. A vast number of witnesses were called on both sides and on Jan 5th 1982 Judge Overton gave a 38 page ruling concluding that Creation Science was not science but religious doctrine and thus could not…
View original post 1,507 more words
I shared the excitement when I read at https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-021-97778-3 that
in ~ 1650 BCE (~ 3600 years ago), a cosmic airburst destroyed Tall el-Hammam, a Middle-Bronze-Age city in the southern Jordan Valley northeast of the Dead Sea
and that this event could have given rise to the biblical account of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Then I learned that the work was conducted by a group based on an unaccredited Bible college (Trinity Southwestern University, TSU), that the world’s leading authority on airbursts has denounced the claims as impossible, that eight separate major research groups have questioned the assumptions, reproducibility, and factual accuracy of related earlier work by the corresponding author, that there is an unusually active thread criticisng the work on PubPeer, and that Retraction Watch, which says that criticism has engulfed the paper, is in correspondence with the Chief Editor of the journal, part of the Nature group, where the work appeared.
Problems listed by acknowledged experts in PubPeer include misuse of Mark Boslough‘s account of airbursts (Boslough is a long-standing critic of the claims of the TSU group); and no clear evidence that the destrution of the palace walls was catastrophic, absence of qualified examination of skeletons, anatomically misdescribed bones, claims without evidence that bone damage was associated with traumatic death, rather than later damage, the mixing of kinds of debris is commonplace and not evidence of catastrophe, the connection of the carbon-14 dates to the alleged destruction is not established, and claims of burning of bone lack evidence and consistency (Megan Perry of the Petra North Ridge Project, who knows what this kind of stuff looks like.) There is undeclared image manipulation, eventually admitted, but described as without significance. And the account of diamond vs graphite in the paper
Each diamonoid typically contains carbon atoms that are sp3-bonded (i.e., 3 bonded carbon atoms), as in diamond, rather than with sp2 bonding (i.e., 2 bonded carbon atoms), typical of graphite
does not inspire conidence.
In the paper’s Figure 44c, shadows are cast by a sun shining from the direction labelled North. This obviously cannot happen at Tall el-Hammam, giving rise to further concerns about the quality of the work.
My own browsing in what are for me odd places1 shows that other archaeologists, including Aren Maeir of Bar Ilan University, agree in finding nothing unusual in the report compared to “normal” destruction by fire or warfare) Maeir is quite explicit:
[T]he destruction the report described was not that unusual. “I see some things that remind me of phenomena that we have in the Iron Age IIA (1000–925 BC) destruction at Tell es-Safi/Gath (e.g. vitrified or “melted” bricks, ultra-high temperatures, and other things)—a destruction that is most likely caused by the conquest and destruction of the site by Hazael of Aram,” he said.
Mark Boslough, an expert on cataclysmic events who even has an asteroid named after him, tells me that he is tired of repeated rebuttal of what he considers to be obviously false claims, and of seeing his own theoretical analysis of the effect of airbursts invoked as an explanation of claims completely inconsistent with such a process, or perhaps any credible process. For this reason, rather than publishing yet another counterblast that will be ignored, he has taken to describing the controversy, extending over many years, on Twitter (see here, here, and subsequent threads, and PubPeer).
Phillip Silvia, the author from whom soil samples can be obtained, is an electrical engineer by training, who received his PhD training in archaeology at TSU, and published much of this material through TSU press in 2016 as a paperback, in which his PhD advisor, Steven Collins, strangely absent from the author list of this paper although not from an earlier abstract, states (Foreword, page x) that “the Genesis 19 description of Sodom’s destruction was about good a phenomenological description of a cosmic airburst as one could imagine” and describes Tall el-Hammam as “the site I had identified as Sodom based on geographical details embedded in the boblical text”.
Like I suspect many of the journalists and interested readers who swooped on this story, I failed at first to notice that the paper was not, despite the link, an article in Nature but in Scientific Reports. This is one of the stable of less exclusive journals closely linked to Nature being published by Springer, now controlled by the publishing giant Hotlzbrinck, and profiting from Nature’s reputation for excellence. I was only vaguely aware of the authors’ long history of invoking airbursts, took the many kinds of evidence listed at face value, and did not even blink at the claim that “[a]n airburst-related influx of salt (~ 4 wt.%) [from the Dead Sea, apparently] produced hypersalinity”.
The authors have since described this work to a much larger audience in The Conversation, where they repeat their claim, also published in Scientific Reports, of a similar catastrophe at Abu Hureyra in what is now Syria, around 10,800 BCE, assert that “it almost certainly won’t be the last time a human city meets this fate”, claim that such events “pose a severe modern-day hazard”, and advise that “unless orbiting or ground-based telescopes detect these rogue objects, the world may have no warning, just like the people of Tall el-Hammam.” The Abu Hureya paper also repeats a litany of earlier claims that the Younger Dryas, a period of severe cold in the northern hemisphere from around 12,900 to 11,700 years Before Present [Present is fixed at 1950 CE], was caused by a series of impacts with cometary debris, spread over at least four continents. These claims have been severely disputed; see papers listed below.
There are numerous additional reasons for concern about the TSU researh group.
The paper tells us that “The project is under the aegis of the School of Archaeology, Veritas International University, Santa Ana, CA, and the College of Archaeology, Trinity Southwest University, Albuquerque, NM, under the auspices of the Department of Antiquities of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.” Veritas International University believes in “the full historicity and comprehensibility of the biblical record”. It is accredited by the Transnational Association of Christian Colleges and Schools (TRACS), which I have discussed here before. Trinity Southwest University, which now operates from an office in a strip mall in Albuquerque, was formerly in Tulsa, Oklahoma, under the name Southwest Biblical Seminary, and rejects any government accreditation whatsoever as intrusive violation of the separation of Church and State. While the traditional site of Sodom is in Israel (and within the pre-1967 boundaries).
The corresponding author is Allen West, who has been publishing prolifically in this area since 2005 (Evidence for the Extinction of Mammoths by an Extraterrestrial Impact Event) and in 2006 co-authored a book, The Cycle of Cosmic Catastrophes: How a Stone-Age Comet Changed the Course of World Culture, which claims that the debris of a shattered comet was responsible for “a cosmic chain of events [that] began 41,000 years ago and culminated in a major global catastrophe 28,000 years later.” These events include everything from the extinction of the mammoths to the landform of the Carolina Bays to the legend of Atlantis to a purported “mysterious layer of black sediment” found spanning North America to the Younger Dryas discussed in the Abu Hureya paper. West has no academic qualifications or affiliations, and gives his address as Comet Research Group (CRG), Prescott, Arizona (several of the other authors are also members of this group, which is linked to the Rising Light Group, a 501(c)3, tax-exempt charitable organization with a clear Christian and biblical agenda, registered in Allen West’s name.). As detailed by Pacific Standard Magazine, discussing how thing stood regarding CRG’s work in 2017, there have been calls for a for a formal inquiry and
University of Wyoming archaeologist Todd Surovell and his colleagues couldn’t find increased magnetic spherules representing cosmic debris at seven Clovis sites. Nicholas Pinter and his colleagues at Southern Illinois University Carbondale argue the carbon spherules are organic residue of fungus or arthropod excrement. And Tyrone Daulton of Washington University in St. Louis and his colleagues reported that supposed nanodiamonds formed by the impact were misidentified.
On the other hand, in an acrimonious exchange with me in the Comments section of The Conversation, West pointed out that
Our group included, among many others: Dr. James Kennett, emeritus professor at UCSB, specializing in stratigraphy, micropaleontology, paleobiology. He is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, which recognizes the contributions of just 0.1% of all scientists. Dr. Ted Bunch, former NASA section chief and a world-leading meteoriticist. Dr. Robert Hermes, retired from Los Alamos National Labs, world-recognized expert in trinitite or atomic glass. Dr. Wendy Wolbach, chemistry professor who discovered high-temperature soot at the K-Pg boundary.
I replied with a listing of some papers that I have examined criticising West’s own earlier work regarding airbursts, including sampling techniques and claimed evidence for very high temperatures:
Scott AC, Hardiman M, Pinter N, Anderson RS, Daulton TL, Ejarque A, Finch P, Carter-champion A (2017). “Interpreting palaeofire evidence from fluvial sediments: a case study from Santa Rosa Island, California, with implications for the Younger Dryas Impact Hypothesis”. Journal of Quaternary Science. 32 (1): 35–47. doi:10.1002/jqs.2914.
*Boslough M, Harris AW, Chapman C, Morrison D (November 2013). “Younger Dryas impact model confuses comet facts, defies airburst physics”. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. 110 (45): E4170. doi:10.1073/pnas.1313495110.
*Boslough M (April 2013). “Faulty protocols yield contaminated samples, unconfirmed results”. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. 110 (18): E1651. doi:10.1073/pnas.1220567110
*Meltzer DJ, Holliday VT, Cannon MD, Miller DS (May 2014). “Chronological evidence fails to support claim of an isochronous widespread layer of cosmic impact indicators dated to 12,800 years ago”. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. 111 (21): E2162-71. doi:10.1073/pnas.1401150111.
*Holliday VT (December 2015). “Problematic dating of claimed Younger Dryas boundary impact proxies”. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. 112 (49): E6721. doi:10.1073/pnas.1518945112.
Thy P, Willcox G, Barfod GH, Fuller DQ (2015). “Anthropogenic origin of siliceous scoria droplets from Pleistocene and Holocene archaeological sites in northern Syria”. Journal of Archaeological Science. 54: 193–209. doi:10.1016/j.jas.2014.11.027.
*Van der Hammen T, Van Geel B (2016). “Charcoal in soils of the Allerød-Younger Dryas transition were the result of natural fires and not necessarily the effect of an extra-terrestrial impact”. Netherlands Journal of Geosciences. 87 (4): 359–361. doi:10.1016/j.jas.2014.11.027
See, however, in defence of the Younger Dryas impact theory, *Sweatman MB (2021). The Younger Dryas Impact hypothesis: Review of the impact evidence. Earth-Science Reviews. 218: 103677. doi:10.1016/j.earscirev.2021.103677. I thank Christopher R. Moore, one of the authors of the paper I am criticising, for drawing my attention to this review.
*Freely accessible via doi; for other papers, doi gives access to abstracts but not full text.
We await further developments with interest.
1] Bit for a rebuttal by a biblical archaeologist involved in the dig, though not an author on this paper, see here
An earlier edition of this post appeared on pandasthumb.org
We all know the story. Socrates has been told by the oracle that he is wisest of men, but he considers that he himself knows nothing. Puzzled, he takes to cross-examining his fellow Athenians about their beliefs, and time and again finds that they will not bear examination. As a result, he is indicted on trumped-up charges of impiety and corrupting the young. After a trial in which he eloquently defends his behaviour, he is condemned to death. A martyr to freedom of expression, and a shocking example of democracy suppressing dissent. Surely there is more to the story than that? Indeed there is.
I am not about to commit the folly of denying the greatness of Socrates. We still, twentyfour cenuries later, praise his methods of investigation. I myself have used an argument taken directly from one of Plato’s Socratic dialogues. The topic was practical ethics, Socrates’ speciality; and the technique used, questioning assumed certainties, his favourite tactic.
Here’s what happened. A few years ago, I was involved in a moderately successful campaign  to reduce the statutory role of the Churches in Scotland’s local authority education committees. The Church of Scotland attempted to justify its privileged position by pointing to its distinctive Christian ethos. In reply, I pointed out that to the extent that this ethos is generally shared, we do not need any Church to promote it, while to the extent that it is specific to Christianity, the Churches have no right to impose it on the rest of us.
My reasoning derives directly from Socrates, in The Euthyphro, where Socrates challenges Euthyphro to define pious behaviour.
Euthyphro, after a few false starts, defines it as the kind of behaviour that pleases the gods. Socrates then asks a question which reverberates to this day, and which undercuts any attempts to define morality by reference to authority; does such behavior please the gods because it is pious, in which case we still have to ask what it is that makes it pious, and we are back where we started. Or is it pious because it pleases the gods? In that case, piety depends merely on the divine whim.
For how Plato’s Socrates would define morality, we can turn to The Republic, in which he advocates a city ruled by an oligarchy of philosophers, qualified for their post by their superior insights, who give out the legend that they are of different descent from common clay, impose limits on public discussion, and ban poets and non-military music. It is easy to guess how long the sainted Socrates of common belief would have lasted within such a city.
And what about the charge of corrupting the young? Here it makes sense to look at what we know about how Socrates’ disciples behaved during the period of his influence. This included the period of the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta, which had led to total defeat for Athens, and the temporary installation five years before the trial of a brutal oligarchy (the Thirty) operating under Spartan auspices. The War could be seen as part of an ongoing struggle between oligarchy and (severely limited) democracy. The overthrow of the Thirty speaks to Athenian resilience, despite which there had been a further oligarchic coup attempt just two years before the trial.
If there is a single person to blame for the defeat of Athens, it is Socrates’ disciple Alcibiades, who persuaded the Athenians to undertake a disastrous military operation in Sicily, defected to Sparta in the aftermath, and ended up advising Darius II of Persia on how to subvert the Greek city-states. Another prominent disciple of Socrates was Critias, a diehard oligarch who even after the overthrow of the Thirty had led a rearguard action that included the massacre of 300 people at Eleusis . All these events would have been fresh in the memory of the Athenians at the time of the trial.
Without in any way condoning the execution of Socrates, we might in the light of these events be able to come a little closer to understanding it. Unfortunately, the only contemporary accounts we have of the trial are derived from Plato, and from Xenophon who also clearly admired Socrates. So we have the case for the defence, but not the case for the prosecution. We have the wording of the indictment, but not the details of the allegations. Trying to find out what was really going on at the trial is a matter for an investigative journalist, and preferably one deeply committed to both free speech and democracy, who can help us understand why Socrates attracted less than universal admiration.
Fortunately, we have the results of exactly such an investigation, in the form of The Trial of Socrates, by I.F. Stone. Stone was an independent-minded investigative journalist, who avoided close contact with official sources and built his case on publicly available documents. He was a critic of Cold War policies, racism and anti-Semitism in the FBI, and much besides. During his career he worked for several different newspapers, and produced his newsletter, I. F. Stone’s Weekly, from 1953 until angina forced him to retire in 1971. At this point, he completed his long interrupted Bachelor’s degree in classical languages from the University of Pennsylvania, devoted himself to the study of classical Greek literature and thought, and over a ten-year period produced this book, which he completed a year before his death in 1981. What follows is his analysis of the trial and its significance, which I with my two years of schoolboy Greek am not qualified to improve on.
As Stone reminds us, Socrates himself wrote nothing down, and everything you know about him is at second or third hand. There are some critical mentions in Aristotle, who was born 15 years after Socrates died, fiercely hostile satires staged many years before the trial in Aristophanes’ The Clouds and The Birds, and a defence of Socrates in Xenophon’s Memorabilia and Apology, but the most extensive source by far is Plato. Plato’s dialogues, centred on Socrates, are dramatic masterpieces through which Socrates emerges with still contemporary urgency. Scholars will continue to debate how much of this material may represent Socrates, and how much is Plato’s own, but unless there is reason to think otherwise, what we are usually discussing is Plato’s Socrates. However, in the case of the trial, we have the independent account by Xenophon, allowing us to check many crucial facts.
Let me start with Stone’s discussion of The Euthyphro, which occurs in the middle of the book, but goes to the heart of Stone’s critique. The dialogue is set as an encounter outside the courts, where Socrates is dealing with the preliminaries to his trial. It is usually presented, as I did myself earlier, as a triumphant example of Socrates’ probing demolition of Euthyphro’s unwarranted certainty. What we risk losing sight of is why Euthyphro and Socrates are having this discussion in the first place. Euthyphro has a real life dilemma. A labourer has killed one of his father’s slaves, whereupon his father left him in chains in a ditch while sending for legal advice. Three days later, the labourer was dead. Euthyphro has to decide whether it is more pious to be a good son and say nothing, or to be a good citizen and report the matter to the authorities, and he chooses the latter.
It should by now be no surprise that Socrates attacks this decision. Euthyphro has decided that in the circumstances piety requires him to inform against his own father, but under Socrates’ cross-examining, it turns out that he cannot even define piety. This is the background to Socrates’ unanswerable philosophical dilemma. Socrates is guided by the principle that questions can be decided by examining definitions, and it is the lack of a good definition that has led Euthyphro to what Socrates considers to be a perverse decision. I have long regarded The Euthyphro as showing Socrates at his best; but thanks to Stone, I can now see that it also shows him at his worst.
We cannot understand Socrates’ attitude without reference to its political context. Thus the word “labourer,” as Stone points out, was a technical term for the lowest class of freemen, those without property, who had won the right to full citizenship just two centuries earlier, and had suffered most under the oligarchies that Sparta had imposed on Athens. Classical Greek was proverbial for the subtlety of its vocabulary, and accordingly, here as elsewhere, Stone pays close attention to the actual words used, and shows us many shades of meaning that would otherwise be lost in translation. His discussion of the Euthyphro runs to 5 pages, and includes such relevant background detail as the changing fates of the landowners on the island of Naxos, where the episode had taken place, during the Peloponnesian War, and the disenfranchisement of labourers in the oligarchical interludes of the preceding decades.
Stone, a journalist remember, does not waste words, and I cannot possibly do justice here to what takes him 250 fact-filled pages plus footnotes. So I will select just four topics for discussion; what we know about Socrates chief accuser, Socrates’ mutually contradictory claims to ignorance and to superior insight, the full significance of the indictment brought against him, and his extraordinary conduct at the trial.
Socrates’ chief accuser was Anytus, a tanner by trade, but on occasion a general by necessity. We first meet him in The Meno, where Socrates belittles all of Athens’ leading political figures, including Pericles and Thucydides, and Anytus warns Socrates that he could get into trouble by insulting so many people. The Meno is set two years before the trial, and we cannot tell whether this exchange actually took place, or whether the report is Plato’s dramatic embroidering. The underlying issue here, as Stone points out, is not that Socrates takes this or that political position, but that he is antipolitical. He attacks oligarchs and democrats equally, because he does not regard the common herd as fit for self-government under either system. Anytus himself was no extreme democrat. He was a follower of Theramenes, who had attempted to moderate the policies of the Thirty, and been executed for this on the orders of Critias. At that point, Anytas himself had fled Athens, and joined the coalition that soon recaptured the city from the Thirty, Critias himself being slain in the final battle.
Anytus’ son had for a while been part of Socrates’ circle, but that did not last. As Stone puts it, “One might add that Anytus was not unreasonable in withdrawing his son from Socratic tutelage. Anytus had reason to fear that his son might have been turned by Socrates against his father, taught to despise the family business , and converted by his aristocratic associates into a pro-Spartan snob and a supporter of the Thirty.”
Socrates boasted of his own humility. The Oracle at Delphi had proclaimed him superior in wisdom to other men, and so, he said, he had interrogated others renowned for their wisdom, and to his dismay found them lacking. We have already met his dismissal from consideration of Athenian statesmen across the political spectrum. In his Apology  he refers to this without naming names. He then turns his attention to the poets (his contemporaries here would have included Euripides and Sophocles), but rejects them also because they cannot explain their own works to his satisfaction. Regarding skilled tradesmen, a group that included Anytus, he observed that “even the good artisans fell into the same error as the poets; because they were good workmen they thought that they also knew all sorts of high matters, and this defect in them overshadowed their wisdom.” No one, it seemed, could meet his high standards, and he had to conclude that he was indeed better off than anyone else was, being at least aware of his own ignorance. He was also better off in having access to his own daemon, or inner voice. This is not, as one might imagine, some kind of conscience or inner light, but a spiritual entity, as the Apology, especially in Xenophon , makes plain.
Now to the indictment. I had always thought that this included an accusation of “making the worse appear the better cause”. But those words are not those of his accusers. They are Socrates’ (or perhaps Plato’s) own, crafted to cast the trial in the context of suppression of dissent. As Stone convincingly shows, this interpretation was not generally expressed until several centuries later. The actual indictment refers to corrupting the young, and to not believing in the gods the state believes in, but in others.
As for corrupting the young, we have seen the examples of Alcibiades and Critias, and we can at least sympathise with a tanner faced with a Socrates who teaches his son that his father’s occupation is unworthy. We can also be more specific. Aristophanes, lampooning Socrates in his comedies, describes the young under his influence as having been socratified and, in The Birds, spartified. Fifteen years earlier, when The Birds was staged, that may have been a bit of a joke, but not in the aftermath of the Sparta-imposed dictatorship of the Thirty, and the even more recent coup attempt.
The rest of the indictment is the accusation that Socrates “does not believe in the gods the state believes in, but in other new spiritual beings.” According to Stone, what is important here is the reference to the gods that the Athenian state believes in, rather than to gods in general, although Socrates deliberately blurs this crucial distinction in his Apology. He readily establishes that he takes part in the customary rituals, but this could hardly be the point since everybody knew that anyway. Moreover, classical polytheism was indulgent to different views of the gods, and it is not until the rise of monotheism that we have the concepts of atheism and heresy as deviant. So if that is not what the indictment means, what does it mean?
Here we are forced to speculate, for lack of evidence. There are three specific deities that Stone mentions at this point. Firstly there is Hephaestus, god of the smithy, a divine craftsman highly revered in a city renowned for the quality of its workmanship. Yet Socrates disdains such material activities. Then there are two divinities singled out for mention by Athena herself in the final scene of Aeschylus’ Orestes trilogy. One of these is Zeus, but more specifically Zeus Agoraios, Zeus of the assembly, the titular divinity of its free debates. The other is Peitho, or Persuasion, personified as a goddess. Socrates, Stone is suggesting, is under attack for his failure to embrace the essential democratic spirit of participation in public life.
Socrates does indeed attempt to defend himself from such a charge, apparently sincerely but not very convincingly. He says that he had not spoken in the assemblies, for fear of being killed for his opinions. Yet he was expounding those same opinions in the Agora every day, to anyone who would listen, and Plato would continue to teach Socratic doctrine unmolested at his Academy in Athens for another 40 years. He mentions voting against the initial majority in an important trial, but he could hardly have evaded the duty to take part, having been chosen by lot to be among the judges, nor could he have been in danger in stating his opinion, since he persuaded the majority to his own point of view. And he mentions that he quietly ignored an order from the Thirty to take part in an unlawful arrest. Hardly a spectacular display of opposition, when he could have added his very well-known presence to the opposition forces then mustering outside the city.
And finally, to Socrates’ conduct at the trial, and his motivation. Socrates made it very clear to Xenophon’s informant, Hermogenes, that he had knowing set out on a course that would lead to his death. He eloquently laments his lack of eloquence, while claiming that minds have been poisoned against him, and insults the court for being open to rhetorical persuasion. His proud display of humility is calculated to offend the citizens judging him. He belittles the excellences of craftsmanship, poetry, and political debate, for which Athens was justly famous. He gives credibility to the charge of believing in different gods, by invoking his daemon and its preternatural insight. He rejects in advance the possibility of being conditionally acquitted if he stops teaching, although he had done exactly that when asked to under the Thirty. He is surprised – one might almost say offended – by the narrowness of the guilty verdict against him. When proceedings move on to the punishment phase, the prosecution offers, as foreseen, the death penalty, expecting the defence to come up with a serious alternative. Yet Socrates’ counteroffer is that he be awarded civic banquets for life, in recognition of his services to the city. And although he eventually modifies that to paying a small fine, it is hardly surprising that the majority in favour of the death penalty ends up being larger than it had been for the earlier guilty verdict. He was asking for it, after all.
The killing of Socrates was a crime. Socrates was a willing accomplice.
1] I helped present a petition to the Scottish Parliament asking them to revoke the long-standing legal requirement for Council Education Committees to include nominees of the Churches as voting members. In response, the Scottish Government reinterpreted the legislation so as to make their presence a matter for each separate Council to decide.
2] Xenophon, despite his sympathy for the oligarchic cause, confirms this atrocity. Critias appears, favourably, and without any mention of these events, in several of Plato’s dialogues, but these were written many years later.
3] In Xenophon’s version of Socrates’ Apology, Socrates says that Anytus’ enmity arose “because, seeing him deemed worthy of the highest honours of the state, I told him it ill became him to bring up his son in a tan-yard.”
4] The word of course is used here in its original sense of explanation and justification, the very opposite of common current usage. In this paragraph, I use Plato’s version of the Apology, although it was probably written much later, since it is more explicit here than Xenophon’s.
5] Here Xenophon is the more explicit: “I speak of a divinity, and in using that designation I claim to speak at once more exactly and more reverentially than they do who [using divination] ascribe the power of the gods to birds. And that I am not lying against the Godhead I have this as a proof: although I have reported to numbers of friends the counsels of heaven, I have never at any time been shown to be a deceiver or deceived [tumult in court].”
This article first appeared in 3 Quarks Daily.
A friend asked me why I bother about creationism. This article spells out my reasons. It has had some 150,000 reads since first published in The Conversation in February, and has been featured in Snopes and Yahoo! News, and attacked by Ken Ham and Bodie Hodge of Answers in Genesis, Jake Hebert Ph.D [sic] at the Institute for Creation Research, and others.
Many people around the world looked on aghast as they witnessed the harm done by conspiracy theories such as QAnon and the myth of the stolen US election that led to the attack on the US Capitol Building on January 6. Yet while these ideas will no doubt fade in time, there is arguably a much more enduring conspiracy theory that also pervades America in the form of young Earth creationism. And it’s one that we cannot ignore because it is dangerously opposed to science.
In the US today, up to 40% of adults agree with the young Earth creationist claim that all humans are descended from Adam and Eve within the past 10,000 years. They also believe that living creatures are the result of “special creation” rather than evolution and shared ancestry. And that Noah’s flood was worldwide and responsible for the sediments in the geologic column (layers of rock built up over millions of years), such as those exposed in the Grand Canyon.
Such beliefs derive from the doctrine of biblical infallibility, long accepted as integral to the faith of numerous evangelical and Baptist churches throughout the world, including the Free Church of Scotland. But I would argue that the present-day creationist movement is a fully fledged conspiracy theory. It meets all the criteria, offering a complete parallel universe with its own organisations and rules of evidence, and claims that the scientific establishment promoting evolution is an arrogant and morally corrupt elite.
This so-called elite supposedly conspires to monopolise academic employment and research grants. Its alleged objective is to deny divine authority, and the ultimate beneficiary and prime mover is Satan.
Creationism re-emerged in this form in reaction to the mid-20th century emphasis on science education. Its key text is the long-time best seller, The Genesis Flood, by John C Whitcomb and Henry M Morris. This provided the inspiration for Morris’s own Institute for Creation Research, and for its offshoots, Answers in Genesis and Creation Ministries International. [Note added: Ken Ham points out in his rebuttal that Answers in Genesis arose independently of the Institute for Creation Research, and that his article concerning denial of divine authority, cited in the previous paragraph and below, does not mention Satan by name.]
Ken Ham, the founder and chief executive of Answers in Genesis, is also responsible for the highly lucrative Ark Encounter theme park and Creation Museum in Kentucky. As a visit to any of these websites will show, their creationism is completely hostile to science, while paradoxically claiming to be scientific.
Demonising and discrediting
These are common conspiracy theory tactics at play. Creationists go to great lengths to demonise the proponents of evolution, and to undermine the overwhelming evidence in its favour.
There are numerous organisations, among them Biologos, the American Scientific Affiliation, the Faraday Institute, and the Clergy Letter Project, which describes themselves as “an endeavour designed to demonstrate that religion and science can be compatible”, that is, promoting evolution science within the context of religious belief. Even so, creationists insist on linking together the separate topics of evolution, materialist philosophy, and the promotion of atheism.
According to Answers in Genesis, evolution science is a work of Satan, while former US Congressman Paul Broun has described it as “a lie straight from the pit of hell”. When he said that, by the way, he was a member of the House of Representatives Committee on Science, Space, and Technology.
Like other conspiracy theorists, creationists immunise themselves from fact-based criticism. They label the study of the past as based on unprovable assumptions, thus disqualifying in advance the plain evidence of geology.
They then attack other evidence by focusing on specific frauds, such as Piltdown man – a hoax skeleton purportedly of a missing link between humans and other apes that was debunked more than 60 years ago – or the dinosaur-bird amalgam “Archaeoraptor”, discredited by sharp-eyed scientists before ever making it into the peer-reviewed literature (although not before making it into National Geographic).
One favourite target is Ernst Haeckel, whose pictures of embryos, published in 1874, are now considered to be seriously inaccurate. However, they do correctly draw attention to what most matters here: the features shared during development by different organisms – including humans – such as gill arches, a long tail, and eyes on the side rather than the front of the head, confirming they have a common ancestry.
Haeckel’s name appears on the Answers in Genesis website 92 times. He is also the subject of a lengthy chapter in Jonathan Wells’ Icons of Evolution; Science or Myth?. This book, which even has its own high school study guide, was what first convinced me, back in 2013, that creationism was a conspiracy theory.
It is a splendid example of creationist tactics, using long-rectified shortcomings (such as those in early studies on Darwinian evolution in peppered moths, in response to changing colours following reduced pollution) to imply that the entire science is fraudulent. Wells has a real PhD in biology, a PhD acquired with the specific goal of “destroying Darwinism” – meaning evolution science – from the inside.
Wells is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute, a conservative thinktank which promotes creationism under the banner of “Intelligent Design”, and is also linked to other conspiracy theories, such as claims that the consensus on climate change is bogus, and that last November’s US presidential election was stolen. An article by a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute on the subject has now being removed from its website, but can be found here.
Conspiracy theories are always driven by some underlying concern or agenda. The theory that Obama’s birth certificate was a forgery, or that the 2020 US election was stolen, are about political legitimacy and will fade as the politicians promoting them fade from memory. The idea that COVID-19 does not exist is proving a little harder to dislodge, but scientists, such as those behind Respectful Insolence, are organising to fight back on science denial and misinformation.
I fear that the creationist conspiracy theory will not be so short-lived. It is driven by a deep-seated power struggle within religious communities, between modernists and literalists; between those who regard scripture as coming to us through human authors, however inspired, and those who regard it as a perfect supernatural revelation. And that is a struggle that will be with us for a long time to come.
I was dismayed last Thursday to see the following paragraph posted by AiG under Ken Ham’s byline:
In the article [in The Conversation], the author uses the term science to refer to the so-called “scientific consensus” regarding things such as climate change alarmism, vaccinations, evolution, and a lack of “human exceptionalism.” But what the author is failing to recognize is the difference between observational and historical science. In other words, this author has a “difficult relationship with science” because the author doesn’t understand the word science.
For some time, Answers in Genesis has minimized the importance of human-made climate change, as have Creation Ministries International and the Discovery Institute, and this position of necessity involves denying the authority of a declared scientific consensus. However, Answers in Genesis has hitherto accepted the value of vaccines, and in two recent related articles, here and here, gives a detailed scientific account of how vaccines work, and praises their effectiveness in the context of the complexity of the immune system, which of course for AiG is evidence for creation.
The article in The Conversation, cited above, reports that “[p]eople with a libertarian or conservative worldview are more likely to reject climate change and evolution and are less likely to be vaccinated against COVID-19,” and in the US context relates such rejection of science and an exaggerated view of human exceptionalism, to religiosity.
The historical versus observation nonsense is familiar, as are the attacks on scientific consensus and on concern about climate change, and our models of climate change do indeed involve the “historical science” that uses ice cores and other techniques to map climate change throughout the Ice Ages and beyond. But including “vaccinations” in the areas of scientific consensus apparently to be rejected is alarming. The study of vaccine effectiveness is very much part of current observational science, and we can see no good reason for Answers in Genesis to be turning against it, even on their own terms. What we must fear is that AiG may be about to fall in line with other creationist institutions ranging from Grace Community Church to the Discovery Institute in minimizing the severity of an epidemic that is known to have killed 644,840 people in the US and 4,442,332 worldwide (as of August 22). AiG was from the outset ambivalent about masks, and even jokingly (or blasphemously) telling its readers not to be anxious about COVID just as Jesus told his disciples (Matthew 6:25-34) not to worry about the necessities of life. Despite a rash of articles in March and April of last year, arguing that the mutations giving rise to COVID were not really examples of evolution, AiG has published nothing of significance on the subject since that time.
This does not bode well.
This piece appeared first on PandasThumb. Thanks to Dan Phelps and to the Sensuous Curmudgeon for alerting us to the AIG post, and to Dan Phelps for unearthing the photograph from Ken Ham’s tweet lead.
It isn’t for me, it’s for you. It’s also virtue signalling, and nothing wrong with that. And finally, I’m glad to say, it’s what the law is where I live. There is of course a libertarian argument against mask wearing, just like there’s a libertarian argument against drunk driving. So what?
We have known for months that the main way COVID-19 spreads is through aerial droplets. When these dry out, they form an infective aerosol. So the best way to stop this happening is to catch them before they dry out. That’s the real function of the mask. It give some protection to the wearers, but much more important is the protection it gives to those around them.
But I’m double vaccinated; how could I possibly be infectious? Very easily. We know that vaccines are not 100% effective against COVID-19, although they greatly reduce the chance of diagnosable infection, as well as the chance of such infection becoming serious or lethal. It follows that there might be quite a number of us wandering around harbouring the virus but completely unaware of it, especially if we have been vaccinated. And live vaccine has been recovered from the noses of vaccinated subjects. We also know that our vaccines are less effective against the relatively new Delta variant that they are against the older strains from which they were developed, and the laws of mutation and evolution mean that new variants are emerging all the time, and being selected for their ability to spread even in a largely vaccinated population.
I also know that if people see those around them wearing masks, they are more likely to mask up themselves. That’s good for them, and good for those around them. This is what used to be called setting a good example, but that expression seems of gone out of fashion. Now it’s likely to be called virtue signalling, which actually means exactly the same thing, but is turned into an insulting attack on my sincerity. Too bad. I really don’t care whether or not strangers on a bus think that I’m virtuous. But I do care enough about them to want to see them keeping each other safe.
In Scotland, as I write, mask mandates are in force in indoor environments where people from different households mix, with exceptions for the small minority for whom mask wearing is a problem. It isn’t for me, although I’m officially asthmatic and have been diagnosed with Level 2 Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease. In England, by contrast, Alexander Boris dePfeffel Johnson dropped mask mandates in England while at the same time telling everyone that mask wearing was desirable. As it was, I thought his position completely in character, as was today’s spectacle of unmasked MPs in the crowded Chamber on his side of the House. However, I can only look on with astonishment when people like Governor Greg Abbott of Texas move to prevent local authorities, and schools, from imposing mask mandates in their own jurisdiction.
I confess I was delighted to hear that Abbott himself has just tested positive for coronavirus. It is unlikely that he will come to any harm, since he is double vaccinated and no doubt, unlike many Americans, carries excellent health-insurance at the taxpayer’s expense, but there is every chance that during the pre-symptomatic phase of the infection he passed it on to others, who may not be so fortunate.
But what about the libertarian argument against making mask wearing (or, indeed, vaccination) compulsory? This is an argument that for deep cultural reasons has appeal in the US, and I am surprised to see it echoed to the point of mass demonstrations in the UK and France. The argument is, presumably, that I am the best judge of my own circumstances, and the government (or as it is sometimes called the nanny state) should not be making my decisions for me.
An interesting argument. Surely I am better able than anyone else to evaluate the effect of alcohol on my driving, rather than imposing arbitrary limits based on the amount of alcohol in my blood, with no regard to how superbly well I personally happen to be able to carry my liquor. I also know better than anybody else just how well the brakes on my car need to work, given the way I drive; how dare government force me the obligation to spend my own money to have this checked by strangers? And so on.
Or perhaps I’d better keep such thoughts to myself, in case they resurface on GB News. And after all, if you really don’t care about what’s happening to the people around you, I can’t make you.