Reviewed: The Incredible Unlikeliness of Being; Grandmother Fish

In an earlier post, I said that the right way to undermine creationism is to promote appreciation of the science of evolution, by presenting it in ways that are engaging, enjoyable, and above all personal. In this post, I review two more books that succeed in doing this; Alice Roberts The Incredible Unlikeliness of Being and Jonathan Tweet‘s Grandmother Fish.

UnnamedGrandmother Fish is a book like no other I have seen. It is an introduction to evolution, for adults to read to their pre-school children. It is also much more than that, and comes with well-earned commendations from Stephen Pinker, David Sloan Wilson, and Daniel Dennett.

We start with a delightfully drawn Grandmother Fish, who lived a long, long, long, long, long time ago and could wiggle and swim fast and had jaws to chomp with. At once, this is made personally relevant: “Can you wiggle? … Can you chomp?” We proceed by way of Grandmother Reptile, Grandmother Mammal and Grandmother Ape, to Grandmother Human, who lived a long time ago, could walk on two feet and talk and tell stories, and whose many different grandchildren

could wiggle and chomp and crawl and breathe and squeak and cuddle and grab and hoot and walk and talk, and I see one of them … right here!

Each stage has its own little phylogenetic tree, with the various descendants of each successive “grandmother” shown as each other’s cousins, and there is an overall tree, covering all living things, that anyone (of any age) will find interesting to browse on. Finally, after some 20 pages of simple text and lavish illustration, there are around 4 pages of more detailed information, directed at the adult reading the book, but to which I expect children to return, as they mature, remembering the book with affection, as they surely will, years or even decades later.

So here we have nested families, family resemblance, and the development of more and more specific and complex features. And any adult, or indeed any alert child, will readily extend the discussion. Was there a grandmother cat, whose grandchildren include lions and tigers and pussy-cats, and how was she related to grandmother carnivore? Where do fossils fit in? (The tree shown includes pterodactyls, dinosaurs, and early birds.) And the most common arguments against evolution, from “only a theory” to “where are the intermediate forms?” to “if evolution is true, why are there still monkeys?” will stand immediately revealed as the nonsense they are. Indeed, one of the few statements in the endnotes that I disagree with is that “Evolution by natural selection is very difficult to understand because it doesn’t make intuitive sense.” It will, in my opinion, make perfect sense to a child who has met so clear an exposition early on, and who will therefore find it much easier to understand intuitively than, say, Noah’s Ark.

Back story: this project was crowdfunded on FaceBook, on the basis of some initial sketches and text. The author professes a long-standing interest in evolution, but his career hitherto has been elsewhere, in computer games (he was lead designer on the 3rd edition of Dungeons and Dragons). However, he has had expert advice from many people, including Eric Meikle, Education Director at the [US] National Center for Science Education.

Publication: pending. Initial partial draft available on request here (technical note: the mammalian tree shown there has since been updated). Diagram from book draft website.

Disclosure: I have corresponded with the author who tells me I will be thanked on the book’s website. Review based on initial draft + correspondence with author. I will be buying this book for my grandchildren as soon as it becomes available.

Alice Roberts The Incredible Unlikeliness of Being, despite (because of?) coming from an established author and presenter, is as personal as could be. It starts with Alice Roberts’ emotional response to becoming a mother, and the incredibly unlikely being is the reader. The subject matter is (mainly) the development of the human embryo, and that developing embryo is not some third party abstraction, but you. And so evolution is also about you, as example after example throughout the book makes clear:

It’s about your evolutionary heritage, and it is about your own embryological development, when you grew in changed, part of you folding like origami, until you are shaped like a human.… This is the best creation story, because it is true.… This scientific story, pierced together from many different sources of evidence, is more extraordinary, more bizarre, more beautiful, than any creation myth we could have dreamt up.

Alice Roberts is Professor of Public Engagement in Science at the University of Birmingham, and one of the new generation of writers and TV presenters who in the UK fill much the same role as Bill Nye and Neil deGrassie Tyson in the US. She is by training a doctor and anatomist, and much of her own research has involved forensic examination of pre-human hominin skeletons, the coldest of “cold cases”. This background shows up clearly in her detailed descriptions of your developing structures, and she shares with us her emotions about coming face-to-face (in one case literally) with her own anatomy, as when, after x-ray tomography, she was given a replica of her own skull.

My Day on a Plate

Prof Alice Roberts holding a replica of a skull (not, in this case, her own)

The unlikeliness is not just the obvious unlikeliness of your two particular parents meeting, of that one egg becoming fertilised, and of that one sperm out of the enormous number available on being successful. Nor even of the improbability of your parents in turn having come into existence, and so on. Behind all this, and multiplying all those improbabilities, is the meandering history of our evolution:

The more I delve into the structure and workings of the human body, the more I realise what a cobbled-together hodge-podge of bits and pieces this thing we inhabit really is. It is brilliant, but it is also flawed. Our evolutionary history is woven into our embryological development and even adult anatomy in surprising ways; many of our body’s flaws can only understood in an evolutionary context.

We start with a history of ideas, and here it struck me as remarkable how long it took for it to be generally recognised that both parents contribute to the form of their offspring, despite the obvious evidence from physical resemblances. Leeuwenhoek with his microscope first observing sperm, the much later discovery of the mammalian ovum, a comical (in hindsight) controversy between “spermists” and “ovists”, the puzzle, insoluble even in principle until the advent of genetics, of how both parents could contribute to what we now call the information content of their offspring, and the further conundrum, unsolved until DNA was identified as the genetic material, of the material means by which they did so.

Most of the book is concerned with the complex process that leads from first release of the ovum, through fertilisation, implantation, and the many subsequent stages of development, through to birth. This story is inextricably intertwined with the story of your evolution, and I can only pick out a few of the most salient points from a wealth of fascinating detail.

From cell division to implantation, with the cells beginning to form separate layers

There are, of course, vestigial or discarded organs. In your second week of development, when you were not much more than a couple of layers of cells, you generated a yolk sac, homologous with the yolk sac of fish, amphibians, reptiles, and even those mammals (the platypus and the spiny anteater) that lay eggs. The difference is that in these the yolk sac is filled with the nourishment that will sustain the growing animal until its birth, whereas in placental mammals like us, it has been without function for the past 90 million years or so. Nonetheless, the recipe for making it has never been deleted from your assembly instructions.

At an early stage, it is very difficult to distinguish the embryo of a mammal (that includes you, of course) from that of a fish; a little later it is still difficult to distinguish it from a reptile or a bird, and different mammalian embryos continue to resemble each other for even longer. For a while, it was suggested that this is because you were retracing your evolutionary history, but we now know that this idea is based on a mistaken model of evolution. You are not more highly evolved, than, say, a chicken; you have just evolved in a different direction. The earliest stages of development are shared with fish, later stages with reptiles and birds, and later stages yet only with mammals and eventually only with our fellow apes. Thus we do not, strictly speaking, recapitulate our evolution from a fish, nor should we, since the present-day fish is as remote as you are from your last common ancestor with a halibut, but we do recapitulate shared development until the parting of the ways. The new science of “evo-devo” is now beginning to take this story down to the most fundamental level, identifying the molecular basis for the parts of the construction plan that you share with a fish, and the parts, activated later, that you do not.

The cartilage base of human skull resembles that of other mammals.  It is only later, when this is being transformed to bone, that it acquires its specifically human form, with the enlarged dome required to house the brain towering above the rest of the head.

Working down from the head takes us to the larynx, and the unanswered question of the origin of human speech. Here the problem is that the really important working parts – the larynx itself, its associated muscles, and, above all, the tongue – are soft tissues and leave no trace in the fossil record. The position of the larynx lower in the throat, compared with other mammals, may be no more than an accidental consequence of the way our oversized brainboxes sit on top of our spinal column.

The origin of the larynx leads us to the most striking embryological evidence for evolution, namely the direct resemblance between the branchial (gill) bars of fish, and the related structures found, early in development, in terrestrial vertebrates. Then comparative embryology allows us to map our own organs against their fishy counterparts, and to explain some of the more absurd features of our own anatomy.

Our fishy origins are clearest early in development. By week four, the bundle of cells on its way to becoming you has separated into three separate layers, a tube within a tube within a tube. On the outside, ectoderm, which will give rise to your skin; on the inside, endoderm, which will give rise to your digestive tract, from one end to the other, and in between mesoderm, giving rise to a variety of structures. By week five, we can see what will become the backbone, the eye, and the branchial bars in the neck. Each branchial bar has ectoderm on the outside, endoderm inside, and in between a mixture of cells, some from mesoderm and some from neural crest. This in-between layer will develop into a cartilage bar and muscles, and each bar will develop an artery and a nerve.

Land animals and fish have shared much the same developmental instruction manual until this point, but now they begin to diverge. In fish, the branchial arteries accept blood directly from the heart, and the cartilage forms the gill arches. In land animals, development is far more complex. One set of gill muscles becomes larynx muscles, and a nerve that leads to it runs down into the chest, before making its way back up to the top of the throat. Why so? Because the blood vessels that, in fish, run directly between the heart and the gills have become, in land animals, the aorta and main arteries leading from it. And as a consequence, the recurrent laryngeal nerve, as it is called, is trapped beneath the aortic arch when the heart moves downwards, as it does in land animals but not in fishes, and forced to take this convoluted path. Bad design, but an unavoidable consequence of evolutionary history. A creationist with whom I once discussed this suggested that this really was a good design, because it protects the nerve from damage. Tell that to a giraffe.

The first branchial arch gives rise to bones that are part of the jaw joint in reptiles, but in mammals have shifted and shrunk and become two of the bones of the inner ear. And yes, there is an intermediate form, an early mammal with two jaw joints, the outer one thus being made free to move closer to the ear to improve resonance, and, ultimately, to detach itself. Gill flap muscles in the fish end up as face muscles in primates including us, and so on. The cleft between the first and second branchial arch gives rise, in us, to our ears, and to the tubes that connect the middle ear to the throat, thus enabling pressure to equalise.

Descending to the molecular level, these developments are orchestrated by a set of control genes, prominent among them the so-called “homeobox” or Hoxgenes, first discovered in fruit flies, where they regulate the formation of the segments of head, thorax, and abdomen. Similar genes are found in every segmented animal, including us (if you don’t think you’re segmented, think of your backbone and ribs). This arrangement must be very ancient, since your last common ancestor with a fruit fly was some 800,000,000 years ago, but has undergone elaboration. The fruitfly has 8 Hox genes, lined up in a row, that come into play one after the other. In the lancelet, this has been expanded to 14. At some stage between the lancelet and jawed fishes, the entire genome seems to have doubled and redoubled, so that you have four sets of Hox genes, each on a different chromosome.

Some aspects of this regulatory system are much more flexible than others. All land vertebrates have a spine with the same basic sections: neck, chest, lower back, sacrum, and tail. All mammals have just seven neck vertebrae, whereas the number of tail vertebrae is highly variable, being up to 49 in one species of porpoise, which flexes its tail to swim, while our tail, or coccyx, has only 3 to 5 fused together. This tail can be considered as a vestigial organ, since it is a mere relic of that sported by our monkey-like ancestors, but like many so-called vestigial organs it continues to earn its keep, in this case by acting as an anchor for muscles. Our lower backs have one more vertebra then our chimp cousins, and are less securely held in place, developments thought to be related to our habitual walking on two feet

Relevant to Professor Roberts’ own anatomical interests, although less directly so to the question of embryological development, is the detailed history of our limbs. This indicates us to have been truly bipedal as long ago as 3.2 million years ago (Lucy), while long legs at 1.5 million years ago (Narikotome boy) suggest adaptation for running. In popular imagination, we learned to stand upright as we evolved away from knuckle-walking ancestors, but the reverse may be the case. Monkeys, like us, have feet far harder and less flexible than those of modern non-human apes, and Prof Roberts speculates that our ancestors were tree walkers. If so, it is the apes, with their prehensile toes, rather than us, who have diverged from the form of our common ancestor.

But once we started walking on the ground, that change in behaviour, which could occur within a group in a single generation, would have suddenly generated a new set of selection pressures in favour of long distance walking and running. This is an activity for which we are superbly adapted, even though only a few groups, such as the Tarahumara in Mexico, still regularly practice it.

The final Chapter reviews our present understanding, and considers our place in nature.  Development is controlled, more or less, by DNA, including control genes as well as directly expressed genes. It is not, as Haeckel thought, a true recapitulation, but shows clear echoes of earlier stages – segments, gills, fish hearts, the lancelet brain. Our developmental biology is, to use one of Prof Roberts’ many memorable metaphors, a palimpsest.

Similar environmental pressures can give rise to similar adaptations, so that the mammalian ear with its three tiny bones has evolved at least four times in different lineages, while, as hinted above, different ways of moving around including bipedalism may have arisen more than once among our ancestors and their close cousins. But nonetheless, evolution remains unpredictable, if only because changes in the environment are unpredictable. One such change was that triggered by the asteroid that did for the (non-avian) dinosaurs. Selection acts without foresight, and without that asteroid, we would not have had humans (for what it’s worth, my own view is that we would have had the intelligent descendants of the velociraptors instead).

Evolution takes place in context, and that context, for a species capable of learning from each other, includes a technology. An innovation in toolmaking could have spread through a group of our ancestors in a single generation, triggering a new set of selection pressures that moulded their hands and bodies to a new set of tasks. We speak of the survival of the fittest, but fitness here refers to the cultural, as well as the natural, environment. And we are more influenced in our lives, and our evolution, by our own culture and its artefacts than any other species.

The book concludes with reflections on our similarities (profound) and differences (striking, yet perhaps more quantitative than qualitative) from other species, our contingent and transitory nature, and our uniqueness both as species and, returning to the starting point, individuals.

There are numerous drawings (Prof Roberts is an award-winning artist), and an extensive bibliography.

A few detailed comments. Prof Roberts shows, early on, a series of drawings copied from Haeckel. Connoisseurs of creationism will recognise this as a deliberate provocation, since creationist writers repeatedly point to alleged shortcomings in these, as reason to ignore the whole of developmental science. Lancelets are shown as sister group to vertebrates; in fact, we are closer to tunicates (the subphylum that includes sea squirts) than we are to lancelets, although tunicates only acquired their sessile habit after we and they had gone our separate ways (Prof Roberts tells me that this will be corrected in later editions. I occasionally found the layout of diagrams and their explanations rather awkward. This may be an inherent limitation of the e-book format that I was using.

Figures from Prof Roberts’ personal website, and Amazon website.

Disclosure: this review is of the first Kindle edition, personal purchase.

These reviews first appeared here, on 3 Quarks Daily

Trillions of Stone Age Artifacts: A Young Earth Anthropology Paradox

Paul Braterman:

If there really were lots of people, not just Noah’s family, and they really were spread out over Africa, and if they really were making tools from some 2.6 million years before present, and if they were profligate throwaways when it came to flint flakes, then a little arithmetic shows that there ought to be trillions (yes, millions of millions) of discarded tool bits all over Africa. And there are.

Earlier, I blogged about time as interval at Siccar Point, and time as process where the lavas of the Giants Causeway were weathered between outflows. Now (see below, reblogged from Naturalis Historia) I can add time as the accumulation of junk. Time shallow by geological standards, but very deep indeed compared with all of human history, or with the imaginings of the author(s) of Genesis. And I don’t think even Ken Ham can talk his way out of this one.

And this week sees the resolution of another paradox: the oldest tools known date to some 2.6 million years before present (Mybp), but the oldest clearly hominin remains were at 2.4 Mybp. So do we have to infer that australopithecines made tools? Not necessarily, since (see here, and references therein) we now have a decidedly hominin-looking jaw at 2.8 Mybp.

There may be other implications for our ancestry. Jaw bones are the best preserved of all skeletal remains, but on their own they tell us little about what most interests us – the size of the brain case. However, where one fragment was found there may be others, and we can only await further developments.

Originally posted on Naturalis Historia:

Trillions of stone artifacts cover the surface of the African continent. The product of the manufacturing of stone tools by hunters and gathers over long periods of time, these stone artifacts literally carpet the ground in some places in Egypt and Libya.

Just how much Stone-Age produced rock is strewn across the African continent?

Imagine a volume of rock equivalent to 42-84 million Great Pyramids of Giza.

The “million” isn’t a typo. That number sounds absolutely fantastic, doesn’t it?  Let’s take a look at how these numbers were derived.

The results of a study just published (see references below) shows how incredibly dense stone artifacts can be in some places in Africa.   Working in a remote location in southern Libya, researchers took surveys from hundreds of one or two-meter square plots. From the tens of thousands of artifacts found in them, they estimated a minimum density of 250,000 stone artifacts…

View original 1,346 more words

A fracking lie. No more no less

Paul Braterman:

By my geologist friend Michael Roberts.

I don’t like it when creationists tell lies and I don’t like it when anti-frackers tell lies, either.

My own view, for what it’s worth, is that the Royal Society probably know what they’re talking about when recommending that the UK proceed, but with tighter regulation than that currently at force in the US; that if more methane means less coal that’s a good thing (coal has twice the carbon footprint per unit of energy, as well as a whole shopping list of other disadvantages); that knee-jerk rejection of fracking is the very opposite of evidence-based decision making; and that quantified evidence-based decision making is crucial if we are to keep the lights on while keeping the climate change already in process within tolerable bounds.

https://royalsociety.org/policy/projects/shale-gas-extraction/report/ June 2012

https://royalsociety.org/~/media/policy/Publications/2015/01-07-15-rs-response-environmental-audit-committee-environmental-risks-fracking.pdf Jan 2015 and references therein

Originally posted on Peddling and Scaling God and Darwin:

Here’s the latest picture doing the rounds to show earthquake damage done by fracking

Yellowstone1959

Or more clearly ;

yellowquakeq1959

Now this looks very scary  and will make people concerned that will cause quakes in their area. However twitter sleuth aka sadbutmadlad took on the roll of Sherlock Holmes and soon found that this terrible shot had nothing to do with fracking and was in fact caused by a 7.5 quake near Yellowstone in 1959 which is somewhat before modern fracking started

You can read it all about it here ; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1959_Hebgen_Lake_earthquake

Oh deary me, pants on fire

Featured Image -- 1005

It does seem to me that fractivists wear very Hot Pants and possibly the fire is fuelled by CH4.

If this was a one-off it would be forgiveable, but porkies like this are the staple fare of so much anti-fracking literature put out whether in print or in the aether.

It seems that this…

View original 106 more words

Creationism in schools; the myth of the “isolated incident”

It recently emerged (see Jonny Scaramanga’s post, shown below) that Durham Free School was teaching creationist doctrine, based on the explicit creationist claim that the Solar System is so well suited to intelligent life that it must have been designed by God, complete with reference to the eclipses He has so thoughtfully provided for the edification of astronomers:

When the _____ comes between the earth and the Sun, there is an _____ . There are ____ going round the Sun. Only Earth has life on it. God has designed the Solar System so that Earth can support life. For example, Earth is the right _____ from the Sun, so that we are neither too hot nor too cold. Our moon is big, which stops us from wobbling.Comets and asteroids which could destroy Earth are mopped up by planet _____ before they get to us.

An isolated incident? Not really. Durham Free School has (or had; it is closing at Easter) numerous problems, being described by a local MP to the BBC as a “haven for crap teachers”. My friend Jonny Scaramanga has now discovered that the individual teacher concerned has a track record of creationist teaching, and gives all the details in a blog post on Patheos, which with his permission I reproduce below. This is far from the first case where schools set up by obviously creationist groups have had to be shut down in short order, or even failed to take off altogether; consider for example al Madinah and, in its many reincarnations, Everyday Champions.

So when we learn, as we are learning, that creationist groups such as Apex Church and York Street Hall in Peterhead are infiltrating schools, it is no surprise to discover multiple links between these schools and other fundamentalist groups; for the full Scottish Secular Society response to these disclosures, see here.

The official Scottish Government position is that incidents such as the Kirktonholme scandal were isolated, and that no official action or guidance on creationism is needed. I see no reason to believe this cheerful conclusion as regards Scotland, any more than it would have been correct if applied to England. Do you?

And one unfortunate difference is that while aggrieved parents in England can appeal to official guidelines, the Scottish Government has so far resisted giving any such advice.

Regular readers will know that the Scottish Parliament’s Education and Culture Committee will be considering the matter on March 10th (see here and here). We look forward to their deliberations, and to the Government’s response, with interest. 

State-funded school in Durham, England employed a creationist science teacher

Schools Week carries the exclusive news that Durham Free School gave students a science worksheet that said “God has designed the solar system”. The local newspaper reports that parents are justifiably outraged.

I’ve done some Internet sleuthing, and it looks like the science teacher in question has a long history of teaching at creationist schools. It’s against the law for Free Schools in England to teach creationism. If the teacher, David Hagon, has indeed taught creationism as science in his past roles, it must be asked how he was given the job at Durham Free School.

Image from schoolsweek.co.uk. I believe its inclusion here constitutes Fair Use for critique. What is it with creationists and their obsession with fill-in-the-blank exercises? Content aside, this is awful pedagogy.

From the article:

Schools Week has discovered David Hagon, a teacher at the school, in September asked year 7 pupils to complete a worksheet as part of their science homework that stated God was responsible for the design of the solar system.

The worksheet (pictured) said: “Only the Earth has life on it. God has designed the solar system so that the Earth can support life.”

Any school, academy or free school that is found to teach creationism as a scientific fact would be in breach of the law and its funding agreement.

A spokesperson for Durham Free School said: “Legitimate concern was raised over this matter as the worksheet was in clear contradiction of the school’s policy and practice.

“It was an isolated incident, which the former headteacher dealt with promptly, firmly and appropriately; the worksheet is not used by the school.

Durham cathedral pictured from the river. Photo by Wiki Commons user jungpionier. Creative commons.

An isolated incident? According to the Northern Echo, a parent claimed otherwise. It all seemed fishy to me, so I searched online for the phrases “David Hagon” and “Christian school”. I just had a hunch.

I found this:

STAFF, parents and pupils at a Sale-based Christian school are celebrating after receiving a glowing report from Ofsted.

Inspectors visited Christ the King School in November last year and returned complimentary findings about the institution’s provision of spiritual, moral, social and cultural development and pupils’ outstanding behaviour.

Accompanying the article is a photograph of a staff member with the students, and the caption reads “Deputy Head David Hagon with some of the pupils”.

Two questions then arise:

1) Did Christ the King School teach creationism?
2) Is this the same David Hagon that has recently taught at Durham Free School?

1) Yes. CTKS (which closed in 2008was a member school of the Christian Schools Trust (CST), a network of private evangelical schools in the UK. Sylvia Baker was one of the founders of the CST, and she produced a PhD thesis about it. Here are some notable quotations from that thesis:

The [CST] schools may well constitute the only setting within the United Kingdom where science education is approached within a creationist framework. [pp. 150-151]

The teaching of creationism as an alternative to the theory of evolution constitutes one of the most controversial issues involving the new Christian schools. Walford (1995a, p20) investigated 53 of the schools in 1993 and found that the teaching of creation and evolution was one of their distinguishing features. This has been confirmed by a recent investigation involving the schools which took part in this survey, as described in Chapter 3. The Christian Schools Trust statement on the teaching of creationism and intelligent design (see Appendix 3) clarifies the approach that the majority of the schools are taking. [pp.160-161]

The schools themselves claim that, in addition to placing all of their educational practice within a Biblical creationist framework, when it comes to science education they teach creationism alongside evolution as a debate. [p. 166, see also p. 168]

Appendix 3 then contains a statement, agreed by all member schools of the CST, which as my friend and colleague Paul Braterman puts it, is “a skilfully crafted instrument for teaching evolution in such a way that it will not be believed”.

So a David Hagon was the deputy head of a school that undoubtedly taught creationism as science.

2) Was it the same David Hagon teaching at Durham Free School?

Probably. I can’t prove he is, but it seems only a remote possibility that there could be two creationist David Hagons. I did a search on the Electoral Roll for David Hagon. In the 2002 register, there were 19 matches (the most of any year); for 2015, just 11. According to British Surnames:

There are approximately 852 people named Hagon in the UK. That makes it the 7,920th most common surname overall. Out of every million people in the UK, approximately 13 are named Hagon.

Given what a small minority creationists are in England, it’s not massively likely that there are two creationist science teachers called David Hagon, is it?

Hopefully, a Durham Free School parent or pupil will be able to look at the photo from Christ the King School and confirm whether this is indeed the same David Hagon.

I’m not finished. Google has another match for “David Hagon” and “Christian school”, and it’s from Emmanuel College in Gateshead. According to the article, someone named David Hagon was “Head of Electronics” at the school.

The name “Emmanuel College Gateshead” may ring a bell for you. That’s because it was embroiled in a massive row over creationism. Scientists both Christian (John Polkinghorne) and atheist (Richard Dawkins) criticised the school’s science teaching, and it was noted that the school had allowed its hall to be used for an Answers in Genesis meeting. The school’s head of science, Steven Layfield, had previously been a director of the creationist organisation Truth in Science.

So if I have correctly identified this David Hagon, he has previously been in a senior position at one private school where creationism was explicitly taught, and one state-funded academy where it was allegedly taught. Yet somehow he was teaching science at a Free School where it is a condition of the funding agreement that creationism is not taught as science. It looks something went badly wrong with the vetting procedure for staff at Durham Free School.

Read more:

I’m breaking the law by showing you this picture

Bullingdon

Yes, that’s Dave, Boris, and the rest of their Old Etonian pals, in purpose-tailored [1] getups, before the notorious Bullingdon Club dinner, which year after year ended in drunken rioting, invading and smashing up the rooms of ordinary students (who were referred to as “trogs” i.e. troglodytes), the occasional debagging (an old tradition; see Evelyn Waugh’s Decline and Fall), and then moving on to more serious stuff like smashing up shops.

And while we’re at it, a few years later here‘s George Osborne, Number 16. Jo Johnson, Boris’s younger brother,is at Number 8.

The Oxford elite: The Bullingdon Club members in 1993 - George Osborne is pictured on the far left next to his swaggering chums

We saw this happening, when I was a student, year after year, and groaned. It would be interesting to see the police records of Dave and Boris’s Bullingdon nights, if they still exist.

But no need to worry. Not only was the State paying their student fees, plus a token minimum grant (not loan), but they knew that daddy would show up with cheque-book and persuade the shop owner not to press charges. In David Cameron’s case, daddy was a hard-working stockbroker, and rose to be senior partner of the stockbrokers Panmure Gordon & Co., now with offices in Switzerland and Singapore, despite the handicap of having had a father and grandfather who were also partners in the firm, and Cameron has pointed him out to us as an example of what can be accomplished by hard work and diligence.

I was hoping you would see a lot more of Dave and Boris enjoying themselves in the run-up to the Westminster election. As I had hoped before the last one. But this was not to be.

In 2007, the copyright owners of the picture suddenly and mysteriously decided to ban its further distribution. I wonder why.

I am glad that the story has now resurfaced. It was the BBC who carried it in 2007; I am not hopeful that they would do the same today.

Just remember, we’re all in this together; Dave said so. And have a thought for what else the people in these photographs have smashed.

h/t Geoffrey Braterman, RealPaulLewis

1] Cost, £1,000, or 200 hours minimum wage earnings, when the story was written. I’m told (see comments) that this was uninflated and should in present day money be £3,500, or pushing 600 hours minimum wages, or 49 weeks benefits living allowance in Glasgow. But remember, that includes the special biscuit-coloured waistcoat. And you do get two more chances to wear it, if you make it into the Club in your first year.

Reviewed: Animal Weapons, by Douglas J. Emlen

AnimalWeaponsI have had enough of arguing with creationists. If force of argument could defeat them, they would have disappeared long ago. The reality is that people believe what they want to believe, that they like what they like, and that they are much more interested in what relates to them directly than they are in scientific abstractions. So the way to defeat creationism is to present the scientific reality in ways that are engaging, enjoyable, and above all personal. In this post, I review one of three recent books that succeed in doing this, using very different approaches. The other two will form the subject of a later post.


Animal Weapons
, by Douglas J. Emlen, is subtitled The Evolution of Battle, and compares the evolution of weaponry by animals with that of human warfare. The book is greatly enriched by drawings by the graphic artist David J. Tuss, who specialises in the dramatic portrayal of scientific material, although, thanks to the extraordinary development of animal weapons, I found some of the illustrations difficult to follow.

EmlenLabEmlen himself is a professor of biology at the University of Montana, and his laboratory’s website is itself a feast to behold. One of his group’ aims is, as stated on that site, to actively communicate the excitement of evolutionary biology to broad audiences through books and the popular press, contributing to public understanding of animal diversity and morphological evolution and Emlen is co-author, with Carl Zimmer, of Evolution, Making Sense of Life, one of the few university level textbooks I have come across that can be read for pleasure. Emlen’s own original Ph.D. project, which he refers to in the book with evident nostalgia, involved fieldwork in Central America studying dung beetles. It turns out that some species of dung beetles do, and some do not, develop extravagant weapons. Ball-rolling dung beetles squabble over balls of food carved out from the droppings of larger animals, but the fights are free-for-all scrambles and they do not become heavily armed. Tunnelling dung beetles hide their trophies in burrows with narrow entrances. Females feed and hatch their young at the bottom of these tunnels, and males duel fiercely to retain possession of these. This duelling situation leads to direct selection pressure in favour of larger weapons, despite their cost; Emlen himself showed that selecting for larger weapons exacted a direct cost in poorer development of other organs, such as the eyes. Burrowing dung beetles develop weapons, while ball-rolling dung beetles do not.

This illustrates a general point about weapons developed for control to resources. The resources need to be defensible, like burrows, or (to take other examples that Emlen cites) tree branches, or sap-oozing nicks on tree trunks.

Throughout the animal kingdom, some species do, and some species do not, develop fierce weapons 148px-Lascaus,_Megaloceros (1)whose only function is to fight others of their own kind. Among large animals, these weapons are generally  a feature of the males, and are used in duels to decide access to females, either directly or through control of resources such as food or territory. The costs of these weapons to those who possess them are enormous. Stags, for example, devote so much calcium and phosphorus to building up the calcium phosphate in their antlers, that they cannot get enough from their food and deplete their skeletal bones to make up the shortfall. The most extreme example in the deer family is the extinct Irish elk (Lascaux cave painting shown R), where extravagant and development seems have been so demanding as to leave the animals with no margin to spare when changing climate reduced the amount of fodder available. However, the cost of not having the best weaponry is, from an evolutionary point of view, prohibitive. There is nothing worse for your genetic inheritance than failure to secure mating opportunities.

Less extreme are weapons developed by some carnivores, such as sabretooths, who had 10 inch long canines capable of breaking the back of a mammoth. But these also are expensive to their possessors, requiring adaptations of the skull and neck that make fast running impossible, and sabretooths are thought to have ambushed their prey by dropping down from trees.

640px-Alcazaba1The counterpart of offence is defence, and the counterpart of weaponry is armour and fortification. A mediaeval fortress would be defended by two sets of walls, the outer one shielding the inner from bombardment, the only entrances being narrow gateways easily guarded by a few heavily armed soldiers, in a space too confined for attackers to take advantage of numerical superiority. The same is true of termite mounds, which are capable of withstanding attack by a column of army ants; similar causes produce similar effects.

Human weaponry evolves rapidly, under cultural pressures, as the result of technical innovation, with long periods of stasis in between. The invention of the battering ram transformed ships from mere vehicles for fighting men into weapons able to destroy each other, so that naval warfare became a matter of duels in which the largest and fastest ship would be the winner. This led over the course of some 300 years from 600 BCE onwards to the development of multiple rows of oars until the ships grew too unwieldy to manoeuvre (one of my very few complaints about this book is that it tells this same story twice). Individual human weaponry can become very expensive, like knightly armour. Such weaponry can also suddenly disappear, as armour became useless against improvements in crossbows, longbows, and, eventually, firearms, much cheaper and more available to the common citizenry than the panoply of a mounted knight, only to reappear in our own time with the development of Kevlar. The arms race between fortification of cities and the development of siege warfare machinery came to a rapid end in modern times with the appearance of artillery. Human warfare can also evolve in surprising ways, as in the development from the Vietnam War to the present day of asymmetric combat, depending on small locally based militias operating in small groups against the massed might of great powers.

In nature, arms races can come to an end in several different ways. They can reach equilibrium, Sneaky4when the additional expense of even larger weapons is not enough to compensate for the sheer difficulty of maintaining them. In a population of lumbering heavily armed creatures, small, nimble variants can become, at least for a while, more successful, but once these have taken over completely the arms race can start all over again. This has happened many times in dung beetles and in antelope. Heavy weaponry can be bypassed or its owners tricked. For example, small dung beetles can dig parallel burrows that bypass the guarded main entrance, mate with the female, and leave the same way they came, with the guardian none the wiser. Or, as in the case of the Irish elk, changed circumstances may make the hereditary weaponry nutritionally unsustainable, bringing the arms race to an end through the disappearance of the population.

B-2_first_flight_071201-F-9999J-034There is one important difference between human and animal arms races that Emlen does not discuss. Natural selection is brutal but rational, and expensive armament does not survive unless it does in reality contribute to its owner’s individual fitness. Human weaponry is very different, because it is the result of political choices. Hence the persistence of such enormously expensive projects as the US Stealth Bomber programme (each B2 bomber, shown L, cost $2 billion in 1997 dollars), the entire British and French “independent” nuclear weapons programmes, or the bloated nuclear arsenals of the United States and, in its time, the Soviet Union and now of Russia, despite their total irrelevance to any actual or conceivable military situation. Indeed, if the author’s account of the Able Archer crisis of November 1983 is correct, the last of these came perilously close in November 1983 to bringing our civilisation to an abrupt end for no good reason whatsoever. Dung beetles have better sense.

In a later post, I will be reviewing The Incredible Unlikeliness of Being, by Alice Roberts, and Grandmother Fish, by Jonathan Tweet.

Animal Weapons, by Douglas J. Emlen, Henry Holt, pp 288, Hardback ISBN-13: 978-0805094503, Nov. 2014, from £ 11.19/$13.95; Paperback, Picador, scheduled for December 2015; Audio CD/Audiobook available.

Irish elk, as shown in book, HTO, Wikimedia Commons, public domain. Double-walled Alcazaba of Malaga, 11th Century, Photo Gaxul via Wikimedia. Sneaky male dung beetle from book. B2 image by USAF via Wikipedia.

Disclosure: the copy reviewed was my own personal purchase.

This review first appeared on 3 Quarks Daily, here.

What is the “Soft Tissue” Found in Dinosaur Bones?

Paul Braterman:

An analysis (with link to full scholarly critique) of this deceptive and slippery claim, which creationists continue to promote despite rebuttals from the very scientist whose work they are misdescribing. The red “blood” colour is merely iron oxide; the preserved structures are encased in bone mineral; the only preserved organics are fragments of notoriously tough connective proteins, stabilised by cross-linking over time (I would add from my own scientific experience that the microcomposite bone-collagen structure will add further stabilisation); and the scientist responsible (Mary Schweitzer, who happens to be a devout Christian) has herself protested against the use of her data to promote an indefensible Young Earth agenda.

Originally posted on Letters to Creationists:

For fossils as old as dinosaurs (over 65 million years), the conventional wisdom has been that no original organic material could remain. If the delicate structure of soft body parts is discernable, that is only because these parts were converted to some type of inorganic mineral in the fossilization process.

However, over the past two decades, paleontologist Mary Schweitzer has rocked our world by presenting visual evidence of soft tissues recovered from the interior of dinosaur bones, and biochemical evidence indicating that these are in fact the remnants of the original cells and structures from within the dinosaur bone pores. For instance, here is a network of blood vessels, containing little round red things that look like red blood cells:

High magnification of dinosaur vessels shows branching pattern (arrows) and round, red microstructures in the vessels. Source: Schweitzer, et al., “Soft-Tissue Vessels and Cellular Preservation in Tyrannosaurus rex”, Science, 307 (2005) 1952 [6]. High magnification of dinosaur vessels shows branching pattern (arrows) and round, red microstructures in the vessels. Source: Schweitzer, et al., “Soft-Tissue Vessels and Cellular Preservation in Tyrannosaurus rex”, Science, 307…

View original 1,013 more words

The amazing geology of a “granite” kitchen countertop

Paul Braterman:

Reblogged from geologictimepics Rockin’ countertops–geologic time in our kitchens and bathrooms!

Compare this with my description of a single pebble here.  In these twice-metamorphosed slabs of rock, the fragment under high local stress (asterisked) is that little bit more soluble as a result, The beauty of rock structures is something that continues to amaze and delight me.

Originally posted on geologictimepics:

I stopped by a “granite” supplier yesterday –the kind of place that sells “granite” and “marble” slabs for countertops.  Besides the fact that almost none of the slabs were actually granite or marble, they were spectacular rocks that showed wonderful wonderful detail. I nearly gushed at the idea of taking a geology field trip there.  It’s local, and you seldom find exposures like this anywhere else!

slabs of polished rock at a "granite" warehouse --not sure if any of this is actually granite, but it all reflects geologic time. slabs of polished rock at a “granite” warehouse –most of it’s not actually granite, but it all reflects geologic time.

Generally speaking, “granite” in countertop language means “igneous” or “metamorphic” –crystalline rocks that form miles beneath Earth’s surface and so require great lengths of time to reach the surface where they can be quarried.  When I first started this blog, geologic time with respect to igneous and metamorphic rocks were some of the first things I wrote about –it’s such pervasive and important stuff.

View original 473 more words

Darwin vs today’s creationists; Eugenie Scott in Glasgow

GenieIntro

Lady Hope; Darwin on religion; varieties of creationism; creationist activity in UK; Petition 1530; Intelligent Design and the varieties of creationism; the eye; continental drift and biogeography; Mendelian inheritance; ancestry of whales; varieties of creationism; the “missing link”; Q&A

This is my personal selection from the talk that Genie gave to the Glasgow Skeptics on Monday February 15, as best I recall it. I thank her for a copy of her slides, and any misinterpretation is entirely my own fault (I have added some comments of my own in parentheses).

the title of the talk was: “What Would Darwin Say to Today’s Creationists?” The answer is just this:

Haven’t you been paying attention during the last 156 years?

Lady Hope and the myth of deathbed conversion

The first thing that would surprise Darwin if he could come back to life today would be the legend of his death-bed confession, to a certain Lady Hope, of reversion to Christianity and renunciation of evolution. Lady Hope is real enough. An evangelist and temperance crusader, she was a colleague of the philanthropist James Fegan, who ran a mission to London’s street urchins. Fegan corresponded with Darwin, who in 1880 gave him permission to use the reading room at Downe House for his work, and it seems plausible that Darwin and Lady Hope might have met around then.

In 1915, we have Lady Hope being reported at a Baptist revival meeting as having said that she spoke with Darwin in his death bed, and that Darwin had confessed to a love of scripture, and to regretting things he had said when younger. More specifically, that as a young man with unformed ideas he had thrown out suggestions that to his surprise spread like wildfire. (I note that Darwin in his autobiography confessed to an initial love of Paley’s natural theology, and in The Descent of Man to surprise at the speed with which evolution had been accepted, and remarks of this kind may be the seed of Lady Hope’s account.) In 1915, Lady Hope was over 70, so knowing how memories are reworked, and how stories grow in the telling, we can see how the totally false story that we have today could have arisen without conscious mendacity.

Darwin’s religious views

As for Darwin’s own views, he referred to belief in the punishment of unbelievers as “a damnable doctrine”, and may well have turned away from the idea of a benign deity after the death of his dear daughter Annie. (However, if I understand his Autobiography correctly, he continued to regard “this immense and wonderful Universe” as more than the product of mere chance[1], and eventually retreated into agnosticism only because he regarded the matter as beyond human understanding; I have discussed this here, and how more sophisticated modern creationists misdescribe his views here) .

Young Earth and other varieties of creationism

Crossbedding

The Cococino sandstone layer, showing the cross-bedded structure.  This, when examined together with small-scale and granular texture, identifies it as a wind-swept dune deposit.

Darwin, who was a geologist before he became a naturalist, would be very puzzled by Young Earth creationism, since in his time the Churches accepted (and churchman geologists contributed to) the geological column and the implication of many millions of years. Young Earth creationism and “creation science”, as a claimant to speak for mainstream Christianity, only arose in the mid-20th century. “Creation science” needs to account for the plain facts of geology, and does so in extraordinary ways, asserting for example that the entire Colorado Plateau, successive strata with a depth of over a mile, were laid down and drained within a year by the waters of Noah’s Flood. Hence creationists’ obsession with the Coconino Sandstone, whose texture and cross-bedded structure (as known since before 1945; see here and references therein) are characteristic of a wind-blown desert dune, and their extraordinary attempts to rationalise the claim that it was laid down under water.

Creationism is invariably associated with religion, and with those schools of religious thought that place great emphasis on the sanctity of a particular text. (Since such texts are ancient, they could hardly do other than adopt a creationist viewpoint.) Darwin probably never considered Islamic creationism, Turkey (despite still being a great European power) being seen as remote and exotic. Acceptance of evolution seems to vary widely throughout what one might call the Muslim world, but is a worryingly low 35% in Turkey. Turkey is home to the prolific publicist Adnan Oktar (Harun Yahya), publisher of the Atlas of Creation, which attempts to deny that evolution has occurred by comparing present-day forms with fossils. The Atlas’s scientific methodology, however, leaves much to be desired. Its “caddis fly” image is a photograph, not of an insect, but of a fishing lure. (I fear the problem of Muslim creationism may be deep-seated and widespread. I have written about the emerging alliance between Intelligent Design creationism and conservative Islam in Scotland, while in 1985, the then nominally secularist Turkish Government invited the Institute for Creation Research to help draft the school curriculum.) In the UK, according to a Theos/Comres 2009 survey, only 37% of those surveyed said that humans are the result of purely naturalistic evolution, 28% said we are the result of evolution according to God’s plan, 11% believed in evolution guided by divine intervention, and only 17% embrace separate creation. (The authors of the Theos report on the survey, themselves, describe evolution as “uncontestable”[2].)

There are varieties of creationism. Young Earth creationists accept biblical chronology, and think that present and extinct species coexisted. Old Earth creationists accept versions of the scientifically agreed chronological sequence, but regard each stage as a separate phase of the Creator’s activity. Guided evolution accepts common descent, but treats successive changes as the result of divine intervention (perhaps by intervention at the molecular level). Intelligent Design considers mutation as a random process, and, neglecting the role of selection, improperly infers that it cannot generate meaningful novelty. (In the US, Intelligent Design advocates are generally Old Earth creationists, but in the UK leadership and allies are more often believers in a young earth.)

Creationism in the UK and its opponents; the current Petition

Creationist bodies are very active within the UK. Creation Ministers International has a UK branch (which caused furore by sending a speaker to the publicly funded St Peter’s Academy in Exeter, a mistake by the school that will not be repeated). There is Truth in Science (which sent copies of the creationist pseudo-text book, Explore Evolution, to every school in the UK), and others. Various bodies, such as Skeptics, Humanists, and the British Centre for Science Education, actively work to restrict their influence, and the Scottish Secular Society’s Public Petition PE01530 (with which regular readers will be very familiar) aims to keep creationism from being presented as valid in schools.

The eye, continental drift and biogeography, Mendelian inheritance, the ancestry of whales, and the mythical missing link

GenieEyeDarwin would have been very interested in the direction of creationism in the UK, and the revival of the design argument, which he regarded as refuted by natural selection. When he considered the eye as a structure that at first appeared too complex to have arisen naturally, he pointed out that it could have arisen from a photosensitive spot, through a directional cavity, to an enclosed structure whose fluid would concentrate the light, and eventually, via the development of the enclosing membrane into a lens, to the complexity of the mammalian eye in its present form. We now know that all these imagined stages are actually evident in molluscs.

He would have been delighted by continental drift, which solves long-standing puzzles in biogeography. Biogeography is one of the most convincing arguments in favour of evolution. It explains, as separate creation can not, why the flora and fauna of continental islands are closely related to those of the adjoining land mass, while those of oceanic islands are restricted and exotic. And yet, how come there were marsupials in Australia and in South America, but nowhere else? (North American marsupials crossed from the south, after the relatively recent closure of the isthmus between the two continents). We now know that marsupials appeared when present-day Australia, Antarctica, and South America were joined together in the supercontinent of Gondwanaland, allowing migration of marsupials from their original South American home, and indeed marsupial fossils have been discovered in Antarctica.

He would also have been delighted to learn of Mendelian genetics, which solve the “dilution problem”. Under blending inheritance, a favourable variation would appear in less intense form in the offspring of the favoured individual, but genetic inheritance avoids this. Instead of the character being passed on with half the intensity, it is passed on with the same intensity to half the offspring.

Darwin was ridiculed (still is, by particularly ignorant creationists; see here) for speculating that the behaviour of a bear swimming with his mouth open to catch prey was a clue to the ancestry of whales, which clearly are mammals. Yet within the past 40 years, we have accumulated detailed fossil knowledge (free access review article, from which the image below is taken, here)  of all the intermediate stages linking present-day whales to their even-toed terrestrial ancestors. This is part of a general phenomenon. Darwin famously lamented the gaps

https://i2.wp.com/static-content.springer.com/image/art%3A10.1007%2Fs12052-009-0135-2/MediaObjects/12052_2009_135_Fig27_HTML.gif

Whale evolution ;the first 10 million years

 

in the fossil record, and present-day creationists echo these laments, as if they were still warranted. Thus they commonly repeat a remark made some decades ago, to the effect that all known human ancestral fossils would fit onto a small table. Not any more. The human fossil record is now so rich, that we have more specimens of the relatively obscure species Homo habilis than we have of Tyrannosaurus rex.

 

Skulls

A sample of the skulls of species intermediate between modern humans and other apes

 

So the scientific record (including much not even touched on here), ever since the publication of On the Origin of Species, has been one of steadily reinforcing the central concepts of common descent, and of natural processes driving evolution.

What, then, would Darwin set to today’s’s creationists? Simply this: “Haven’t you been paying attention during the last 156 years?”

Q&A:

GenieFbImageQ: Is there a risk that so uncompromising a talk would put off those sympathetic to creationism?

AS: I would not give this talk to such an audience. There are those whose identity is bound up with creationist religion, whom I cannot hope to reach; those uncertain, to whom I would present the arguments for evolution; and those, like tonight’s audience, who need no convincing.

Q: Are creationists dishonest?

A: Most ordinary creationists are either misinformed or muddled. The higher echelons go through considerable mental contortions, but I have no reason to doubt their sincerity.

Q: How can we respond to those who consider “Goddiddit” a satisfactory explanation?

A: Science is highly valued socially and culturally. So any ideologue tries to recruit science. Hence “creation science,” and devices like imagining the speed of light to have been much higher in the past, so as to allow light from galaxies billions of light years away to have reached us within 6,000 years. “Creation science” is a procrustean bed, on which all observations are distorted until they fit the initial biblical assumptions.

This is contrary to the key moral value of science which is the admission of fallibility. Science as process depends on critical examination and revisability. We need to impart this, not by telling but by showing, and showing by asking. The dandelions on our lawn have short stems, but those over there have long stems. Why might that be?

1] This idea of overall cosmic design is of course the very opposite of the kind of piecemeal meddling that goes by the name of “Intelligent Design theory” today.

(2] Theos is funded by the Templeton Foundation, making it anathema to some exponents of evolution. I have argued that such doctrinal purity is misguided.)

Ken Ham, Noah’s Ark, and authenticity

A MEME ABOUT KEN HAM IN A HAT

hamstraightprofile meme

God of Evolution, which I regard as an ally against the forces of darkness, writes:

I don’t remember the part of the biblical flood story where Noah sues the government for not giving him millions in tax breaks. Maybe that’s because Noah actually was interested in following the God’s directives, you know, unlike some people.

This work by godofevolution.com is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

And if you think that Ken Ham and all he stands for is irrelevant to Scottish schools, think again.

%d bloggers like this: