A Christian writes an open letter to her bishop on the “banned” advertisement

Paul Braterman:

This piece (from a Church of England member) points out the real issue; imposed passive participation in prayer. I would now find this acutely embarrassing; in my youth, as a believer in a different religion, I would have found it blasphemous.

Originally posted on Kathleen Jowitt:

Dear Bishop,

I write to express my profound discomfort with various aspects of the Church of England’s conduct over the past few days, as the news story regarding the ‘Just Pray’ advertisement has unfolded.

Firstly, I note that the DCM agency was entirely within its rights to run or not to run any advertisement it chose. I think that its blanket policy to avoid religious or political material is sensible, and, one assumes, designed to avoid exactly this kind of mess. It is no great effort to imagine the reaction in the tabloid press had another faith group or a secular body attempted to run a similar advertisement. I consider that the Church’s attempt to present this decision as a ‘ban’ and an ‘attack on free speech’ is dishonest and I am ashamed to be associated with this disingenuous act.

Since the agency’s policy is to avoid religious or political…

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Why Saudi Arabia sentenced blogger to 1,000 lashes and 10 years jail

For disrespectful blogging and criticism of the religious authorities, one thousand lashes, to be administered 50 at a time. A fine of one million Riyals (roughly £170,000). 10 years in jail. If, like me, you have been wondering what horrible crimes could merit so severe a punishment, now you can find out.

I BadawiBookacross a selection of Raif Badawi’s writings in my local Waterstone’s, and see that it has been published in the US, UK, and Canada, and that it is also available in French, German, and Italian. I do not know if there is an Arabic version; if there is, it will certainly not be available in the author’s native Saudi Arabia. However, the attempts to silence Badawi have ensured him a far wider audience than he could ever have thought possible.

Having read the offending blog posts, I am shocked. Not because they are strident, or violent, or opposed to religion, or subversive of government, but because they are none of these things, and yet have attracted so extreme a reaction.

A brief foreword to the book (see below) is followed by a short preface, by the bilingual TV journalist Constantin Schreiber. This places Badawi’s writings in context, and describes how the hopes he expressed in the days of the Arab Spring have been dashed by events. Unlike Schreiber, I am neither an Arabic speaker nor an expert on events in the Middle East, so I am doing my best here using the English language translation and my own limited background knowledge. If I have been guilty of any mistakes or misinterpretations, I hope that better-informed readers will point these out.

The first piece is a plea for freedom of thought and expression, using a quotation from the Quran itself in support. The second, a complaint against censorship and the outrage synthesised to justify it, begins with the unconsciously prophetic words

Many of the Islamist activists of Saudi Arabia dream of the return of an era along gone: they fantasize about the times of the caliphs. Those caliphs were known to banish and murder their opponents.… The modern Islamists hope history will repeat itself.

Indeed, we now once again have a self-styled caliph, at the head of the entity known as Daesh, [1] that now of all times needs no further discussion by me.

I call upon NASA to abandon its telescopes and take advantage of our sharia astronomers.

The third piece I, as a scientist, find particularly saddening, as does the physicist Lawrence Krauss, who wrote a brief Foreword to the English edition. It is a gentle satire on the views of sharia scholars, who (as I already knew, and as the footnotes remind us) have decided that the Quran tells us that the Earth is flat. These scholars, nonetheless, assure us that they are not against the science of astronomy. And here Badawi quotes or paraphrases: “It’s a long-lived science, but we reject those who question the sharia vision.” He proceeds to draw out the implications:

I call upon NASA to abandon its telescopes and take advantage of our sharia astronomers. It seems to me their sight is sharper than those broken telescopes at NASA. I believe NASA should send some of its scientists to our preachers to study real science.…  medicine, engineering, chemistry, and geology… Physics and nuclear science… Oceanography, pharmacy, biology, and anthropology.

I have produced similar catalogues of the sciences myself when spelling out the claims of self-styled Creation Science. But full-blooded Creation Science is a fringe belief, even among theologically Conservative Christians, while the sharia scholars to whom Badawi refers are at the centre of the Saudi power structure. This in the heartland of the culture that once gave us astronomers like al Biruni, whose historical data are still of value today, and al Tusi, whose geometric constructions reappear in Copernicus.

innocent blood spilled because of the plans and barbaric and brutal masterminds under the slogan of “Allahu Akabar.”

Essay 4 is more controversial. It is an attack on plans (now reduced to a prayer space within a planned luxury condo block) to build a new mosque in New York, close to the site of the World Trade Center atrocity. Badawi starts out by reminding us that he is a citizen of the country that exported the 9/11 terrorists, and moves on to attack the would-be mosque builders for

this chauvinist Islamic arrogance they display; they disregard the innocent blood spilled because of the plans and barbaric and brutal masterminds under the slogan of “Allahu Akabar.” They see this innocent blood as nothing compared with building a mosque that will undoubtedly hatch new terrorists.… We in Saudi Arabia refuse to build churches altogether. What do you think we would do if those who wanted to build such houses of worship were the same people who stormed our lands?


King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz International Centre for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue, Vienna

Badawi then speaks, deadpan, in praise of [then] King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz and “his famous and great initiative Dialogue Between Religions, hoping to gather us all under the umbrella of human civilisation”, about which I have myself written elsewhere in the light of the punishment that the King’s courts would mete out to Badawi. He goes on to praise the United States for its tolerance of diversity, and to ask “us” (i.e. his fellow-Muslims; this self-identification is never in doubt) to refrain from building a mosque near the site of 9/11. Finally, he criticises Saudi Arabia for its intolerance towards varying beliefs, even beliefs within Islam that do not fit one particular conservative theology:

How will we be able to build a human civilization with positive relations with the 7 billion people around the world when 5.5 billion of them don’t even believe in Islam?

We need those who believe in planting hope in our souls.

In the fifth essay, Badawi approaches the core of his argument obliquely, by explaining why he would be opposed to a Hamas state in Palestine, since it would be a religious entity:

Such a state would only seek to spread a culture of ignorance and death within its people. Instead, we need those who call for life and civilisation. We need those who believe in planting hope in our souls.

Look at all the countries that are based on a religious ideology… They offer nothing more than an irrational fear of a deity and an inability to challenge life…

Incapable of creative thought, incapable of building culture. They are unable to create their own modern structure or even practice systems of civilization bestowed upon them by others.

Any religion-based state has a mission to limit the minds of its people, to fight the developments of history and logic, and to dumb down its citizens.

Badawi then speaks of the stifling influence of the priesthood in mediaeval Europe, [2] and how, once they were confined to their churches,

European countries developed into nations buzzing with civilization, active in building the rights of the individual and exporting knowledge and science for the rest of humanity. These communities welcome to the culture of enlightenment, life, and creativity as they led a revolution against ignorance in all its aspects.

Only at this point does Badawi turn explicitly to the situation of his own country:

Conversely, the religious philosophy controlling our lives in Saudi Arabia is fighting a daily war to plant and impose the lines of Salafi religious ruling, which was forced upon us hundreds of years ago.

Very clever. He is not attacking Islam, but only one of the many traditions within Islam, and even then it is not the doctrine itself that he is opposing, but the way it is being imposed. And he is reminding us that Salafism is at once too old to correspond to modern reality, and too young to lay claim to ancient authority. There are no doubt many other such refinements as this throughout the book that would be understood by his intended audience.

Next we have an essay, written in February 2011, in celebration of the Arab Spring and its seeming victory in Egypt. Where, since then, we have had in rapid succession an election victory by the Muslim Brotherhood, a military takeover, and the emergence of a government that manages to combine the worst features of both religious and secular regimes.

Essay 7 is a critique of some peculiarities of sharia marriage law, and how it treats women, of which Badawi says

It’s a wonder of human behaviour: we build our own handcuffs that trap and harm us. We create the myth, and we honour it.

Of the remaining essays, Mixed or Divided reflects on gender mixing in the workplace, legally endorsed in Saudi hospitals and accepted in some places, such as high-class shopping malls, but not others:

If we continue to limit women’s lives, some might have to take immoral routes to bring bread to the table.

Data are hard to come by, but we know exactly what he means.

In essays on liberalism (by which he means simple tolerance of diversity of opinion) and enlightenment, Badawi writes:

Many… try to advertise liberalism as a line of thinking that rejects religion, somehow suggesting liberalism is a religion of its own. This cannot be further from the truth.… Every intellectual has the right to promote and discuss his own philosophy. This gives people the right to pick what they like from these views and methods.

And later, referring to a public forum that discussed his writings,

Most of the attendees insisted liberalism, first and foremost, is an enemy of all religions, especially Islam, and considers it to be a religion of its own.

I am reminded of the claims I hear every day here in Scotland that secularism is a religion, that a challenge to religious privilege is a threat to religious freedom, that religion is essential to national identity, and that the representatives of religion have the right, if not indeed the duty, to speak for society as a whole. If the values Badawi is espousing are universal, so is the reaction against them.

It would, however, be impudent to compare our situations. I may be moved to complain that Church representatives sit unelected on Scotland’s Education Committees, but no one is going to fine, imprisonment, or torture me for questioning their right to do so.

…truth comes out of dialogue

Later in these essays, Badawi writes that

The belief system of liberalism is advancement. It believes freedom in itself is good and works towards good. It believes that truth comes out of dialogue, and constant improvement is a natural movement for humanity.…

Those who reject it are the Islamists, the Western right wing, and the fusty Europeans of the mediaeval ages. They are those who stood in the face of the French Revolution and who stood by the Church and feudalism.…

A liberal country has no religion, which doesn’t mean it’s godless. It means it protects the rights of all the religions and nurtures all of them without distinction or upholding one over the others.

So far, so good. And then,

Liberalism… goes in harmony with religion: both always call for good, love, and peace.

If only.

Badawi warns that the society he longs for cannot be accomplished simply by copying models from elsewhere:

The obsession with finding a ready-made example is similar to the need of a teenage boy for a father figure to give guidance. It is a clear sign this nation is still lacking in development and weak in its base.

And the Western model itself is currently in deep trouble:

Because of the current cultural atmosphere and the new economic situation, this supposed Western structure is threatening the future of democracy, the values of enlightenment, and the foundations of the French Revolution…

[The current] Western example is based on the value of superiority and power. It relies completely on the servitude of poor nations to their external loans. It is based on the colonising division and the support of some groups and some military forces in the regions of the East and South.

We know who he has in mind. And I will conclude this inadequate summary with a paragraph that reaffirms the values he sees endangered in the West, and suppressed in his homeland:

This Western example is heavy with delusions of total control over the keys to wealth and the secrets of power. It is threatening the values that created the magic of the West over many decades: the values of intelligence, equality, world peace, protection of the environment, conviviality, and the many other values that will lead to the immortality of humanity.

One could argue about whether the French Revolution merits such unqualified applause, whether the West was ever as true to its stated values as Badawi suggests, whether “constant improvement is a natural movement for humanity” (but for powerful quantitative evidence in support of this view, see Stephen Pinker’s Better Angels of our Nature), and from our comfortable armchairs we could even take exception to Badawi’s failure to mention the rights of those without any religion. All this is to miss the point. If there really is to be any hope of an Arab Spring worthy of the name, Badawi embodies it.

Badawi is far from unique. Many others are punished for speaking their minds in Saudi Arabia, or even, like Badawi’s own lawyer Waleed Abu al-Khair, for coming to the legal defence of others who do. Indeed, in some ways Badawi is fortunate. Unlike Abu al-Khair, he has not come before Saudi Arabia’s Specialised Criminal Court, which handles dissent alongside terrorism. His wife and children are safe in Canada, he has for health reasons so far received only fifty of the thousand lashes to which he has been sentenced, and his original conviction for apostasy was modified to spare the Saudi authorities the embarrassment of executing so public figure. Not that these authorities are averse to executions; they have carried out over 150 so far this year. His name is widely known and his voice is heard. And in the Internet age, borders are porous.


David Cameron being decorated by King Abdullah in November 2012, while Badawi was awaiting trial on charges of insulting Islam and apostacy

Saudi Arabia is a major customer for the UK’s armaments manufacturer, BAE systems, so much so that in 2008, the Blair government persuaded Britain’s Serious Fraud Office to drop bribery investigations regarding this trade, for the sake of national security. The weapons supplied are presumably among those currently being used by the Saudis in their bombing campaign in Yemen. Salafism, a form of Quranic Fundamentalism, is currently the fastest-growing branch of Islam, largely as a result of Saudi generosity; it also provides the rationale for the pan-Islamism of Dash. Relations between the UK and Saudi Arabia were extremely close during the lifetime of King Abdullah, but have come under strain recently when the UK pulled out of a contract to train Saudi prison officials. We are assured, however, that Cameron is taking action to heal the rift, as a matter of urgency.

1] For why I use this term, and wish the BBC and other media would do likewise, see here.

2] Some historians might wonder if this is entirely fair. But if it is not, it is precisely because the priesthood never had a total grip on political power, but was challenged internally by the secular authorities, and, latterly, externally by exposure to Greek learning, diffusing back from the Islamic world where it was then valued.

Image of King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz International Centre for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue building from Wikipedia entry. Image of Prime Minister David Cameron receiving the King Abdullah Decoration from the King himself during a November 2012 trade mission, from Daily Mail on line. This article first appeared on 3 Quarks Daily.

A quick quality test for advice about Daesh

If anyone offers advice about Syria 2015, I suggest these simple tests:

  1. What advice did they give about Iraq 2003, and what do they think now about how that one worked out?
  2. Is there any reason to believe that they know anything about the subject?
  3. Does the advice make any kind of sense?

Let me apply these criteria to myself. in reverse order:

My advice, for what it’s worth, which is not much: Undecided on bombing in Syria. Before you kill a lot of bystanders and piss off a lot of the people that you eventually need to have on your side, it would be good to have a plan that shows that this will actually help any. Precedent is not good. Daesh oil sales, arms purchases, and sources of finance may be the best targets, and vulnerable to non-military attack.

I have no special knowledge of the subject.

I applauded the decision of Bush Sr. in 1991 not to march on Baghdad, not having any idea what the Alliance would do when it got there. I agreed with the American Chemical Society in 2002 that the evidence available for the claims of Iraqi WMD* (remember them?) was totally unsatisfactory, but that Saddam Hussein should be compelled to accept unfettered inspection. I completely opposed the decision to go to war after he had done exactly that, and quickly realised that the occupation was a disaster, but how great a disaster, in terms of the death toll in the Insurgency, subsequent internal breakdown, and the emergence of Daesh, I totally failed to foresee.

*There weren’t any, nor any short-term capacity to produce them.

The real Frankenfoods [and they’re not GMOs]

Paul Braterman:


Sweet potato harvest (image from Wikipedia under license)

Gene transfer between different organisms is nothing new. The sweet potato, for example, arose naturally through incorporation of genetic material from Agrobacterium, an organism widely used, as it happens, in commercial gene transfer. Artificial mixing of genes from different organisms happens whenever we breed hybrids, from mules to zorses to hybrid garden flowers. The problems of seed ownership and licensing, monoculture, and crossbreeding are not specific to GMOs, but arise with every proprietary brand. An extreme example of genetic manipulation is the transfer of the gene for human insulin into yeast, a development of enormous benefit to Type 1 diabetics who, previously, had to rely on insulin extracted from pigs’ pancreas.

Ironically, as the article below points out, “conventional” breeding methods, whose products are accepted even by the most scrupulous “organic” farmers, involve far more uncertainty, and far more unnatural violence to the genetic material itself, than does controlled gene transfer.

Much genetic manipulation involves transferring specific genes between one variety and another of the same species. This achieves in a controlled manner goals previously sought by the more uncertain procedures of cross-breeding. Other examples, such as transferring the gene for vitamin A production into rice, or transferring genes enhancing drought tolerance into peanuts, are obvious value, especially in developing countries. One proposed application involves transferring the genes for omega-3 production into the feedstock used in salmon farming, without which farmed salmon lack a valuable nutrient found in the wild. This makes the Scottish Government’s blanket ban on GMOs all the more deplorable.

Originally posted on The Logic of Science:

franken foodAnti-GMO activists are excellent at stirring up emotions and creating fear.  They are better at frightening gullible people than just about any group that I can think of (though anti-vaccers give them a run for their money). Their posts are full of images of grotesque mutations, giant needles sticking out of vegetables, and bizarre genetically hybridized organisms. The real question, however, is whether or not those fears are justified (spoiler alert: they aren’t). You see, it’s fine to present a fact that also evokes an emotion, but when you are exaggerating or ignoring the truth in order to scare someone, then you are committing a logical fallacy known as an appeal to emotion, and that is exactly what anti-GMO activists are doing.

The term “Frankenfood” is perhaps the greatest embodiment of this fallacious line of emotional manipulation, and honestly, it’s brilliant propaganda. It is simultaneously evocative and memorable. It’s…

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AiG is just silly, but global warming denial is serious

Update: just in from NASA: “In Greenland, Another major glacier comes undone”  

Firstly, who do you think said this:

CO2 emissions must be reduced to avoid serious climate change. To manage CO2, governments and industry must work together. Government action is needed and we support an international framework that puts a price on CO2, encouraging the use of all CO2-reducing technologies.

Answer at end.

Evolution denial, as AiG’s declaration of faith (recently posted, with brief commentary, here) shows, is merely absurd. Climate change denial is deadly serious. Although there is an overlap; AiG says the climate is safe because God’s looking after it, and many creationists, including Jay Richards of the Discovery Institute, are fervent climate change denialists. Although in the last case, the reason seems to be a touching faith in the Free Market, rather than in God.

The video below has already had over 34 million views, but deserves a few more before the Paris conference on climate. A good use of 4 minutes of your time. But don’t be unduly alarmed; it really took 75 minutes, not just 4.

The commentary is also interesting: e.g. “The glacier has retreated further in the last ten years than it had in the previous 100”.

I would say “Be afraid, be very afraid”, but someone might call me an alarmist. Enjoy the show!

In case you haven’t noticed what’s happening (Indonesia’s burning; Ethiopia is running out of water; the Maldives are disappearing), see here:

And if someone tries to tell you that it isn’t happening, or that it’s natural, or that it’s happened before, or that it doesn’t matter, or that nothing can be done about it, or (as I recently came across) all of these at once, see here. As to how we know what the causes are,

Refer to caption

if you try to work out what’s happening without anthropogenic CO2 you get it wrong; if you include it, you get it right.

Has it happened before? Check the record:

File:2000 Year Temperature Comparison.png

And remember that all but one year in the last decade has been warmer than 2004, already up and away ahead of the curve, with 2015 set to be the warmest yet for something like 100,000 years.

h/t my friend Kim Johnson. Global Temperature Anomaly by NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies; licensed under Public Domain. Other images created by Robert A. Rohde / Global Warming Art. Literature references for Climate change attribution  here; for reconstructed temperature here. Links to easily accessible sources for brevity and convenience; primary literature links embedded therein, and at Skeptical Science. Quotation at beginning from Shell official policy statement.

What Answers in Genesis believes

AiG spells out here the statement of faith required of all its employees and volunteers, updated August 10, 2015. I am delighted to learn that The Holy Spirit lives and works in each believer to produce the fruits of righteousness, of which the Creation Museum, the Ark Park, and Ken Ham’s personal fortune are examples.

It’s just as well that I’m a believer, because Those who do not believe in Christ are subject to everlasting conscious punishment.  This of course implies that The account of origins presented in Genesis … provides a reliable framework for scientific research, because The doctrines of Creator and Creation cannot ultimately be divorced from the gospel of Jesus Christ.


Creation Museum (Kentucky) tableau of Eden, showing tigers and humans peacefully coexisting

And the fact that Death (both physical and spiritual) and bloodshed entered into this world subsequent to and as a direct consequence of man’s sin explains how we know that tigers were originally vegetarians (see illustration). I’d always wondered.

But let no one accuse AiG of narrow-mindedness! Board members believe that Scripture teaches a recent origin for man and the whole creation, spanning approximately 4,000 years from creation to Christ, but other employees are free to accept different chronologies.

I give the Statement in full, to avoid the risk of quote-mining. UK readers may find it interesting to compare it with the views of the Christian Schools Trust, as described by the Trust’s founder, Doctor Sylvia Baker, in her Ph.D. Dissertation.

Statement of Faith

In order to preserve the function and integrity of the ministry in its mission to proclaim the absolute truth and authority of Scripture and to provide a biblical role model to our employees, and to the Church, the community, and society at large, it is imperative that all persons employed by the ministry in any capacity, or who serve as volunteers, should abide by and agree to our Statement of Faith, to include the statement on marriage and sexuality, and conduct themselves accordingly.

Section 1: Priorities

  • The scientific aspects of creation are important but are secondary in importance to the proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ as Sovereign, Creator, Redeemer, and Judge.
  • The doctrines of Creator and Creation cannot ultimately be divorced from the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Section 2: Basics

  • The 66 books of the Bible are the written Word of God. The Bible is divinely inspired and inerrant throughout. Its assertions are factually true in all the original autographs. It is the supreme authority in everything it teaches. Its authority is not limited to spiritual, religious, or redemptive themes but includes its assertions in such fields as history and science.
  • The final guide to the interpretation of Scripture is Scripture itself.
  • The account of origins presented in Genesis is a simple but factual presentation of actual events and therefore provides a reliable framework for scientific research into the question of the origin and history of life, mankind, the earth, and the universe.
  • The various original life forms (kinds), including mankind, were made by direct creative acts of God. The living descendants of any of the original kinds (apart from man) may represent more than one species today, reflecting the genetic potential within the original kind. Only limited biological changes (including mutational deterioration) have occurred naturally within each kind since creation.
  • The great Flood of Genesis was an actual historic event, worldwide (global) in its extent and effect.
  • The special creation of Adam (the first man) and Eve (the first woman), and their subsequent fall into sin, is the basis for the necessity of salvation for mankind.
  • Death (both physical and spiritual) and bloodshed entered into this world subsequent to and as a direct consequence of man’s sin.

Section 3: Theology

  • The Godhead is triune: one God, three Persons—God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.
  • All mankind are sinners, inherently from Adam and individually (by choice), and are therefore subject to God’s wrath and condemnation.
  • Freedom from the penalty and power of sin is available to man only through the sacrificial death and shed blood of Jesus Christ and His complete and bodily resurrection from the dead.
  • The Holy Spirit enables the sinner to repent and believe in Jesus Christ.
  • The Holy Spirit lives and works in each believer to produce the fruits of righteousness.
  • Salvation is a gift received by faith alone in Christ alone and expressed in the individual’s repentance, recognition of the death of Christ as full payment for sin, and acceptance of the risen Christ as Savior, Lord, and God.
  • All things necessary for our salvation are expressly set down in Scripture.
  • Jesus Christ was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary.
  • Jesus Christ rose bodily from the dead, ascended to heaven, and is currently seated at the right hand of God the Father, and shall return in person to this earth as Judge of the living and the dead.
  • Satan is the personal spiritual adversary of both God and mankind.
  • Those who do not believe in Christ are subject to everlasting conscious punishment, but believers enjoy eternal life with God.
  • The only legitimate marriage sanctioned by God is the joining of one naturally born man and one naturally born woman in a single, exclusive union, as delineated in Scripture. God intends sexual intimacy to only occur between a man and a woman who are married to each other, and has commanded that no intimate sexual activity be engaged in outside of a marriage between a man and a woman. Any form of sexual immorality, such as adultery, fornication, homosexuality, lesbianism, bisexual conduct, bestiality, incest, pornography, or any attempt to change one’s gender, or disagreement with one’s biological gender, is sinful and offensive to God.
  • It is the duty of Christians to regularly attend a local Bible believing church, as portrayed in the New Testament.
  • All human life is sacred and begins at conception (defined as the moment of fertilization). The unborn child is a living human being, created in the image of God, and must be respected and protected both before and after birth. The abortion of an unborn child or the active taking of human life through euthanasia constitutes a violation of the sanctity of human life, and is a crime against God and man.

Section 4: General

The following are held by members of the Board of Answers in Genesis to be either consistent with Scripture or implied by Scripture:

  • Scripture teaches a recent origin for man and the whole creation, spanning approximately 4,000 years from creation to Christ.
  • The days in Genesis do not correspond to geologic ages, but are six [6] consecutive twenty-four [24] hour days of creation.
  • The Noachian Flood was a significant geological event and much (but not all) fossiliferous sediment originated at that time.
  • The gap theory has no basis in Scripture.
  • The view, commonly used to evade the implications or the authority of biblical teaching, that knowledge and/or truth may be divided into secular and religious, is rejected.
  • By definition, no apparent, perceived or claimed evidence in any field, including history and chronology, can be valid if it contradicts the scriptural record. Of primary importance is the fact that evidence is always subject to interpretation by fallible people who do not possess all information.

Updated: August 10, 2015

h/t The Sensuous Curmudgeon, reporting on AiG’s recent defence of its statement of faith. This defence discusses, in some detail, the origin of the Grand Canyon and of the beaks of birds, and will be of particular interest to geologists and molecular biologists. For a commentary on the Statement, by my friend the Rev Michael Roberts, and why he regards it as heresy, see here. NB: comments on Michael’s position, which differs in a number of ways from mine, should be addressed to him, not me.

The Oldest Evidence of Life on Earth

oldest-life-earthIt looks as if life on Earth just got older, and probably easier. Tiny scraps of carbon have been found inside 4.1 billion year old zircons, and examination shows that this carbon is most probably the result of biological activity. This beats the previous age record by 300 million years, and brings the known age of life on Earth that much closer to the age of Earth itself. The implication is that life can originate fairly quickly (on the geological timescale) when the conditions are right, increasing the probability that it will have originated many times at different places in our Universe.

The Solar System, it is now thought, formed when the shockwave from a nearby supernova explosion triggered a local increase in density in the interstellar gas cloud. This cloud was roughly three quarters hydrogen and one quarter helium, all left over from the Big Bang some 9 billion years earlier. It had already been seeded with heavier elements produced by red giant stars, to which was now added debris from the supernova, including both long-lived and short-lived radioactive elements. Once the cloud had achieved a high enough local density, it was bound to fall inwards under its own gravity, heating up as it did so. The central region of the cloud would eventually become hot enough and dense enough to allow the fusion of hydrogen to helium. A star was born.

The heavy elements (and in this context “heavy” means anything heavier than hydrogen and helium) in the dust cloud surrounding the nascent Sun gave rise to the rocky cores hidden within the outer giants Jupiter, Saturn, Neptune and Uranus, of the outer reaches of the Solar System, and to the rocky inner planets, Mercury, Venus, Mars, and, of course, to Earth and everything upon it. We are stardust.

The asteroids are made out of material that was never able to come together to form a planet, because of the competing gravitational pull of Jupiter. Asteroids are continually bumping into each other, scattering fragments, and some of these fragments fall to earth as meteorites. The Hubble Telescope has given us images of star and planet formation in progress. Such is our modern creation myth, magnificent in scale, and rooted in reality.


Prof Bouvier, who identified the oldest known matter in the Solar System, in her laboratory

The oldest solid objects in the Solar System are calcium-aluminium rich grains, the most refractory of all the materials to condense out of the gas cloud. These are now known from a refined form of uranium-lead dating [1] to have formed as much as 4,568.2 million years ago, give or take a very few hundred thousand years either way, and that is now the accepted best estimate for the Solar System’s age. A remarkable feat, to fix this to within around 1% of 1%. As time went by, and the outer regions of the gas cloud radiated away their energy, more materials condensed out, and the grains grew and stuck together by contact and eventually by their own gravity. Thus we went from grains to pebbles to larger objects to planetesimals and eventually to the planets as we know them. The final stages were marked by increasingly violent collisions, culminating in the collision between the proto-Earth and a Mars-size object that gave rise to the present Earth-Moon system, and rounded off by what has been called the Late Heavy


Mariner 10 image of Mercury’s cratered surface

The energy of the collisions will have caused melting, even before the formation of full-scale planetesimals, and the separation of the molten bodies into a metal-rich (mainly iron) core, and a less dense, oxygen-rich outer mantle. It is Earth’s iron core that is responsible for its magnetic field, and this field in turn shields us from the constant bombardment of charged particles emanating from the Sun, which would otherwise have stripped away our atmosphere. Elements like platinum and gold (so-called siderophiles, or iron-lovers) concentrated in the core, which is one reason why they are so rare at the surface, while elements such as oxygen, calcium, magnesium, aluminium and silicon are lithophiles, or rock-lovers, and concentrated in the mantle. Fortunately, the highest melting point rocks, which are thus the first to solidify, are less dense than average, which is why Earth has a solid crust floating on the surface of the mantle. The precious metals are all much stronger siderophiles than iron itself, which forms a strong bond with oxygen and is one of the most common elements in the crust and mantle, as well as being the main constituent of the core. The Late Heavy Bombardment explains the craters on Mercury, the Moon, and Mars. No such craters survive on Earth, but that is because weathering and plate tectonics have completely reworked the surface.

We can learn a lot about the history of these processes from the distribution of the different elements, and even of individual isotopes, especially radioactive isotopes and their decay products. For example, hafnium-182 is radioactive, with a half life of slightly under 9 million years, decaying to tungsten-182. Hafnium is a lithophile, and tungsten a siderophile. So if core formation is slow on this timescale, most of the hafnium-182 from the supernova debris will have had time to decay to tungsten, and will vanish into the core. But if core formation is relatively fast, the hafnium-182 will remain in the rocky phase, where the tungsten-182 derived from it will end up stranded.

We can also sometimes learn about how a material was formed by looking at the ratio of different non-radioactive isotopes. Almost all elements occur as more than one isotope, with the same number of protons and electrons, but different numbers of neutrons. You may well have been told at school that isotopes, despite their have different masses, have identical chemistry, but this is not quite true. Generally speaking, because of quantum mechanical effects [3], different isotopes have very slightly different chemistries, and small deviations in their relative abundance provides clues to a sample’s history.

Using many detailed arguments of this kind, we come up with the following sequence:

  • Beginning of solar system, 4,568 million years ago (see above)
  • Collisions between planetary embryos, and partial melting of resulting meteorites, within a very few million years of that beginning
  • Accretion of Earth under way within 10 million years of beginning
  • Earth-Moon system formed, between 30 and 100 million years from the beginning. Formation of the Earth’s liquid core would be complete at this stage, although the formation of the solid inner core is remarkably recent by comparison (around 1,000 to 1,500 million years ago)
  • Oldest rocks on moon 4,460 million years old, (dating Moon’s oldest crust to within a very few tens of millions of years after its formation)
  • Oldest rocks on Earth, 3960 million years old, with evidence for an older (4000 to 4200 year old) component
  • Late Heavy Bombardment, around 3,900 million years ago, as estimated by dating craters on the Moon.

It was at one time assumed that the Late Heavy Bombardment would have heated the Earth’s surface sufficiently to destroy any life forms in existence at that time. But careful estimates of the total heating effect show that this is not the case, even at the surface, while bacteria obtaining their energy from reactions involving minerals have been found 2.8 kilometers below the surface.


View over Jack Hills (image by NASA)

The Jack Hills of Western Australia are of enormous interest to geologists. The rocks that they are made of are thought to have been originally laid down some 3,600 million years ago, as deposits from river deltas, although they have undergone many episodes of transformation since then. They are of special interest because the delta deposits contained zircons that were already, at that time, hundreds of millions of years old; tough grains of impure zirconium silicate from the already ancient mountains, eroded out by the streams that fed the deltas, and transported and buried there unchanged. These have inspired a truly heroic effort from geologists; one paper, in its title, refers to “The first 100,000 grains.”   Two separate research groups have reported that the oldest zircons found there, dating back to 4,400 million and 4,300 million years ago, show evidence for the presence on the planet of liquid water [4], which is generally regarded as a necessary condition for the emergence of life.

Necessary, but not sufficient.

We turn now to the oldest evidence for life on earth.


Living stromatolites, Shark Bay, Australia

Hard fossils of complex organisms appear in abundance around 545 million years ago, at the base of the Cambrian, although the record actually dates back to at least 575 million years, and we can stretch this back to 610 million years if we include fossilised traces, such as burrows (here, Ch. 7, updated here and here), and much further if we regard some of the mixed bag collectively termed “acritarchs” as complex. If we want to go back much further, we will be relying on evidence from single-celled organisms, which is always less clear-cut and more open to alternative explanations. However, such organisms can form mats, with a characteristic texture that develops from horizontal layers of dead organisms, with trapped soil particles between them. This leads to the development of what are known as stromatolites, domed multi-layered structures that persist to the present day. Modern stromatolites, at least, are quite complex communities of cyanobacteria, single celled organisms capable of photosynthesis, with different kinds of bacteria, using different wavelengths of light, found at successive levels. Stromatolites are found throughout the fossil record; they were at their most abundant some 1,500 million years ago, but are now found mainly in highly saline lagoons, where grazing creatures, which disturb their formation, cannot survive. The oldest fossil stromatolites are found embedded in 3,430 million year old chert (silica rock), and if we make the reasonable assumption that continuity of form represents continuity of kind of organism, it follows that diverse communities of photosynthesising bacteria were already in existence at that time.

There are claims of microfossils of chains of bacteria, going back to 3,600 million years ago, but these are little more than dark smudges embedded in chert, and their interpretation remains controversial. Moreover, rocks of this age or older have all undergone considerable change, having been subjected at various times to great pressure and high temperatures. To go back further, we have to resort to more indirect kinds of evidence.

Carbon occurs on Earth as a mixture of two main isotopes, carbon-12 (99%) and carbon-13 (1%). There are also traces of carbon-14, used in radiocarbon dating, but this has a half life of only some 5700 years and apart from contamination is effectively absent from materials over a million years old [5]. It has been known since 1939 that the isotopic composition of carbon in plants is different from that found in the carbon dioxide from which it is derived; plant carbon, and materials derived from it, are “light”, meaning that they have a measurably smaller proportion of carbon-13. This is as expected [3] from quantum mechanics, which predicts that common dioxide containing carbon-12 will be slightly more chemically reactive than that containing carbon-13. The excess of carbon-12 is, of course, inherited by all materials derived from plants, such as animals (which eat them), and fossil fuels. Indeed, one of the many ways in which we know that the recent unprecedented rapid increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide is the result of our burning fossil fuels, is the increasing proportion of carbon-12 in atmospheric carbon dioxide over time.

In 1995, I had the privilege of visiting the laboratories of Gustaf Arrhenius at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, La Jolla. There I met a Ph.D. student, Steve Mojzsis, who has gone on to pursue a distinguished career in isotope geochemistry. Steve is now Professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder, and his research group was responsible for several of the findings described above. As his Ph.D. problem, Steve was examining 3,800 million year old sediments from Greenland, which were known to contain carbon slightly, but perhaps not conclusively, lighter than expected. Within these rocks, he found grains of hydroxyapatite, which is a very tough form of calcium phosphate, essentially the same as the material your teeth are made of. And within these grains were tiny granules of carbon.

SCAN_20151101_005104192What happened next was made possible by advances in scientific instrumentation, and specifically in the development of what is known as iron microprobe mass spectrometry (more fully, Sensitive High Resolution Ion Microprobe or SHRIMP). This is just what the name implies. A beam of charged particles (ions) is accelerated and focused, and used to drill away at an area of the sample a hair’s breadth across. The fragments blasted out by this process are then fed into a mass spectrometer, which sorts out the different isotopes. When the carbon granules were examined in this way, they were found to be within the range expected for organic material arising by photosynthesis. So these granules were biological in origin, and the earlier inconclusive results were the result of averaging out organic and inorganic material.

Science does not provide proofs, at least not in the sense that mathematics provides proofs, and there are alternative non-biological routes to light carbon. But these involve reactive metals that would not have been present in the crust after core formation, and in any case such processes would not account for the segregation of the light carbon within granules. And so, while scientific conclusions are always in principle subject to being overturned by new evidence, my own view is that it would be unreasonable to deny this evidence for life 3,800 million years before the present.

Steve’s record stood for 20 years, but has just been spectacularly broken, as a result of the zircon screening that I mentioned earlier. Some of the oldest zircons contain flecks of carbon, visible under the microscope. One of these was selected for special examination, cut open, and the carbon examined. Radiometric dating of the freshly cut zircon surface gave a date of 4,100 million years old, while the carbon itself turned out to be light, in the range expected for what had once been living material, with the carbon having been derived from carbon dioxide by photosynthesis. Thus we can now say, with a surprising degree of confidence, that there was life on Earth, and indeed life capable of carrying out the complicated sequence of reactions necessary for photosynthesis, 4,100 million years ago.

So what does this tell us? Are we all descended from the life forms in existence at that time? Almost certainly yes. The alternative would be a far more complicated story, with life having arisen more than once. It follows that the life from which we are all descended was present on Earth within 350 million years of the formation of the Earth-Moon system, and, within an even shorter time after Earth had developed a solid crust, cool enough for liquid water (a prerequisite of our form of life).

LifeItselfCoverIn 1981, Francis Crick wrote that “we can only say that we cannot decide whether the origin of life on earth was an extremely unlikely event or almost a certainty – or any possibility in between these two extremes.” Now, at last, we can go beyond this. If the origin of life was unlikely, then life originating so early would be even more unlikely. So while it may be putting it too strongly to say that its emergence was “almost a certainty”, we can say that it was certainly a reasonable possibility. And if it was a reasonable possibility here on Earth, then it must equally be a reasonable possibility on all the Earth-like planets we have discovered, whose number grows almost daily.

To quote Steve’s comment on these discoveries, “This is what transformative science is all about. If life is responsible for these signatures, it arrives fast and early.”

1] Technically speaking, lead-lead dating. This depends on the ratio of lead-206 (formed by decay of uranium-238) to lead-207 (formed from uranium-235), with non-radiogenic lead-204 as a measure of lead from other sources. The calculation depends on the known difference in half life between the parent uranium isotopes. We know that these half lives must have been constant, since they are not free variables but consequences of the more fundamental constants of nature, and had these been different then the meteorites would not have formed as they did in the first place.

2] One problem with this scenario is the extreme similarity in composition between Earth and Moon rocks, difficult to explain if they are derived from two separate parent bodies. See, however, here.

3] As a consequence of the uncertainty principle, all materials store an unremovable amount of what is called “zero point vibrational energy”, and the amount of this energy is proportional to vibrational frequency. Lighter isotopes are therefore associated with higher zero point energies, leading in general to slightly higher chemical reactivity.

4] The amount of the minor isotope oxygen-18 present in these samples is different from the bulk of the mantle from which they crystallised, and indicative of mantle formed from the remelting of crust that had exchanged oxygen-18 with liquid water.

5] There is a steady trickle of claims from Young Earth creationists to have detected carbon-14 in dinosaur bones, diamonds, and coal. The first two of these are explained by contamination, while the more interesting case of coal is associated with nuclear reactions involving other radioactive atoms trapped within the material.

General references hyperlinked in the usual way. Selected more technical references (some behind paywall but all with open abstracts): Potentially biogenic carbon preserved in a 4.1 Byo Zircon here; Solar system age here; Earth’s accretion here, here, and here; Moon formation here; late origin of earth’s inner core here; zircon mass screening here, Earth’s oldest surviving crust here, here and here; 4.4 Byo zircon here, and the existence of water on earth when oldest zircons formed, here and here; habitability of Hadean Earth here; 3.43 Byo stromatolites here; Biological carbon isotope effect here; previous oldest evidence for life on Earth here.  Image of zircon with granules via ibtimes.

An earlier version of this post appeared in 3 Quarks Daily. I thank James Downard for alerting me to the diversity of the Precambrian biota.

Endogenous Retroviruses in Your Genome Show Common Ancestry with Primates

Paul Braterman:

This article explains exactly what endogenous retroviruses are, the many distinctive features that leave no doubt as to their identity, and how they provide crushingly strong evidence for common ancestry. The argument from endogenous retroviruses to evolution in general, and to specific family trees, is to my mind one of the most immediately convincing (compare http://www.talkorigins.org/pdf/comdesc.pdf, 29+ Evidences for Macroevolution, Sec. 4.5).

As the article points out, the odds against any ERV occurring in the same place in humans and chimps is about 1 in 10^4; humans and chimps share 100,000 ERVs in the same locations, and the odds against this would then be 1 in 10^400,000. By my arithmetic, allowing for the 0.1% where there is no match changes this to 1 in 10^399,800, still a ridiculously vast number.

I would also have welcomed numbers showing where gorillas, for instance, fit into the picture, and numbers of ERVs specific to each species.

The final section of this post is addressed to those who, like the author, regard the Bible as divinely inspired but not as literally true. The argument goes back to Maimonides, if not Augustine, and here forms part of the ongoing civil war within the Abrahamic religions between Fundamentalists and Modernists. Not my battle.

Originally posted on Letters to Creationists:

Introduction to Endogenous Retroviruses

Advances in biochemical technology since 2000 have allowed us to determine the full DNA sequences for humans and other animals. This new information has illuminated our evolutionary history. A number of patterns in our DNA are consistent with a common ancestry of humans and other primates.

One such genetic feature is the distribution of endogenous retroviruses (ERVs) in our genomes. As most readers know, viruses work by introducing their RNA or DNA into a host cell, and hijacking the host cell’s genetic machinery to start making more copies of the virus. Some viruses, called “retroviruses”, do this by having their RNA transcribed into DNA, which then gets inserted into the cell’s DNA genome. (This is considered “retro”, because normally in a cell DNA is transcribed into RNA, not the other way around). The HIV virus that causes AIDS is an example of a retrovirus. Once the…

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Evolution and creationism; a valuable new resource

The Science Meets Religion website, by the information scientist David Bailey, has a Q&A page that addresses the most common and most plausible scientific objections raised by creationists to the science of evolution. Twenty-six specific questions are chosen, and answered in a series of brief essays on such topics as complexity, information theory, radiometric dating, fossils, speciation, and thermodynamics. For each of these, Bailey gives a straightforward statement of the creationist arguments, and then succinctly lays out the evidence for the contrary viewpoint. The rebuttals of creationism are all the more crushing for being written with judicial dispassion.


Our family tree, since we parted company with other chimpanzees

The style is accessible enough for a high school student to read with enjoyment, but the scholarship behind it is impressive. For example, the discussion of alleged missing links between humans and non-human apes gives fourteen separate references to discoveries in the last eventful half dozen years. The essays on dating methods list, and refute, nine separate creationist claims, and refer to numerous scientific sources. These include authoritative on-line reviews such as Wiens and Dalrymple on radiometric dating and Dalrymple on the fallacies in the “creation science” arguments for a young Earth, as well as some key papers fron the primary research literature. The bibliography has (at present) 764 entries, more than 50 of them from 2015, refers to the scientific, creationist, and theological literature, as well as human behaviour and its link (or not) to religious belief, and is regularly updated (most recently last September). You will find here articles on everything from the latest word on Homo naledi to the microwave spectra of distant galaxies to divorce rates.

Bailey is himself a committed Christian, and joins other Christian writers such as Dennis Venema at Biologos and Roger Wiens (whose web page on radiometric dating I cite above) in showing that the “controversy” between evolution and creationism is not so much a conflict between science and religion, as a battle within religion itself. As the Scopes trial anniversary reminded us, this civil war in its current form dates back a century, to the conflict between Modernists and Fundamentalists. (The underlying issues, of course, are far older, and Bailey’s bibliography gives three references to Augustine.)

Some of my fellow unbelievers think the best way to advance the cause of enlightenment is to attack religion. I regard this course as mistaken, psychologically, philosophically, historically, educationally, and tactically. I think that the followers of any religion face major problems, but they are their problems, and it is not my place to lecture them on how they should be resolved.

In addition, affirmations of the validity of evolution and Old Earth geology have far greater power when they come from within the body of believers. Anyone who chooses to be misled by the claim that evolution is uncertain because it is a theory, or who prefers the absurdities of Flood Geology to the evidence of their own eyes, is in need of intellectual liberation, but such liberation can only come from within, and will come far more readily given the encouragement of members of their own faith community.

I conclude by illustrating this point with a paragraph from Bailey’s critique of Intelligent Design:

One overriding difficulty with both the creationist and intelligent design movements is that invoking a Creator or Designer whenever one encounters a difficult question is a “thinking stopper.” Such an approach places numerous grand questions of our existence off-limits to human investigation, buried in the inscrutable mind of a mysterious supreme Being: “Why was the earth (or the universe in general) designed the way it was?” “How did the design and creative processes proceed?” “What physical laws were employed?” “Why those particular laws?” “What prompted the creation?” “Have other earths or universes been designed or created?” “Where are they?” Surely there is a more fruitful avenue for finding a harmony between science and religion than just saying “God created and/or designed it that way” and then deeming it either unnecessary or inappropriate to inquire further.

Here we have a powerful statement, far more powerful because it comes from a committed believer,  of why such doctrines are not merely stupid irrelevancies, but active obstacles in the search for religious, as well as scientific, understanding.

David Bailey’s professional website is here; his professional homes are Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory and (current primary affiliation) University of California, Davis. I learnt of his work through a post on Scott Buchanan’s Letters to Creationists. David uses the hominin evolutionary tree that I show here (taken from Scientific American’s September 2014 special issue on evolution) to illustrate what we do and do not know about our species’ grandparents and great-uncles.

50 Years Ago: How the Continents Fit Together

Paul Braterman:

When speaking of early adopters of plate tectonics, remember also Arthur Holmes remarkable 1931 contribution, which I have written about here.

Originally posted on The Mountain Mystery:

Edward Bullard, 1936, during a geophysics study of the CaribbeanEdward Bullard, 1936, during a geophysics study of the Caribbean

50 years ago, on October 28, 1965, an unlikely British geophysicist made a map that set the record straight on how the world’s tectonic plates fit together. As a child, Edward Bullard was such a slow learner that his family thought he’d end up mopping floors at their brewery. Instead, he became one of a half dozen scientists who proved plate tectonics – and he was knighted for some of his work.

Sir Edward’s family could have given him a wide range of advantages, but they did their best to wreck the young man instead. He overcame the burden of privilege, but it took an unusual and sympathetic teacher to help him realize he wasn’t stupid.

goatBullard’s great-grandfather Richard owned The Goat, a once-popular Norwich pub, and started a brewery, making the family wealthy. Bullard’s grandfather Harry was…

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