This demolition of his local Churches’ stand against fracking (original title Lancashire Churches get Fracked!!), by my friend the Rev Michael Roberts, is well-informed and timely, not least when fracking is, in some places, an election issue. Michael was, as he explains, a field geologist before he became a priest, and is a distinguished authority on the history of the reaction of the Churches to the last two centuries of earth and life sciences, topics that for him have personal, as well as general, relevance.
For me, the affair raises wider issues. It illustrates the dangers of a Church giving advice on complex technical questions, which should lead us to question its very real secular powers. Are the Bishops in the House of Lords now going to campaign to ban fracking? Is a Church that generates the kind of nonsense that Michael so skilfully demolishes fit to run State funded schools, as CofE does in England and will increasingly, if the present Westminster administration is returned to power in May? Is it fit to have unelected representatives on every Local Authority Education Committee, as CofE does in England and CofS in Scotland, alongside a representative from the Catholic Church and, in Scotland, any of a ragtag collection of others? And what shall we say of those political parties that most misleadingly raise panic over fracking (English Greens), or pusillanimously ask us to wait and see (Scottish Greens, SNP)?
There are those who will welcome any scientific folly from the Churches, as weakening the forces of religion. I am not one of them, for many reasons, as I have explained elsewhere.
But it its time I let him speak for himself:
Originally posted on Peddling and Scaling God and Darwin:
A critique of the CTIL discussion paper
The Challenge of Fracking
Shale gas exploration & proposed extraction in Lancashire
(retired priest Diocese of Balckburn)
formerly an exploration and mining geologist
This document The Challenges of Fracking http://www.ctlancashire.org.uk/data/uploads/documents/issues/the-challenges-of-fracking-discussion-document-january-2015.pdf was produced through the Environmental Committee of the Diocese of Blackburn and has been circulated since January 2015 by Churches Together in Lancashire with the endorsement of the all church leaders from the various denominations. Thus we can take it that it is the official view of all the Lancashire churches.
It would be good to give a very brief review of a few hundred words, but technicalities and complexities of the subject matter prevent that. To summarise the paper as false and misleading is true but helps no one. I now briefly list the errors and expand on them in the main body of this review. These…
View original 4,224 more words
They reach this conclusion using a version of Dembski’s improbability argument. No, this is not Poe and it is not self-parody. It is for real. (You can visit the Uncommon Descent page that makes this argument, here, and I have used donotlink so that they will not benefit from your visit.). The improbability of any given dream is suitably enormous (it is) and specific (is what it is, not anything else). It follows, by the application of Dembskian statistics, that every dream is Intelligently Designed.
The author, apparently one N.Kendall by way of Barry Arrington, boasts “This is just one of several disproofs of materialism that I have tried out on atheist websites. Never once had anyone lay of glove on it [sic]”.
So there you are. Prepare to be converted from your sinful materialist ways. Laying of gloves optional.
I wrote the original version of this post in September 2014, when the search was on for a bone marrow donor for my daughter-in-law Nikki. In fact, a suitable donor (not ideal, but close enough to look very hopeful) was found, and an apparently successful transfusion performed. Unfortunately, a few days later, before the transplanted stem cells had time to proliferate, she caught an infection and died.
I am renewing my appeal in Nikki’s memory. To register as a potential donor is easy. The more potential donors there are, the greater the chance of a good match being found for any individual, since we are all different, at the molecular level. This is true for all of us, but especially for those from what are, in the West, ethnic minorities, and for those of mixed race. Details of where you can register at the sites listed below. Different countries vary, but in the UK healthy individuals can register up to age 55.
With enormous courage, my son Geoffrey, Nikki’s widower, is speaking about his experience with the NHS in Brighton at the special Labour Party event “Harry Leslie Smith Stands Up For Our NHS” this Sunday April 21 in Brighton. I do not usually use this blog to indulge in party politics, but would remind readers of the way in which the outgoing Westminster Government has, without any mandate, imposed large scale privatisation, restrictions, reorganisation, and confusion on this most fundamental of public services, which, David Cameron had assured us in debate, was “safe” in his hands.
I desperately need your help to find a bone marrow donor for my daughter-in-law, Nikki Braterman who has acute myeloid leukaemia. Being Irish-European/Burmese, she has an extremely rare genetic make-up and we have not been able to find a match.
Please help by doing three things:
1- REGISTER as a potential bone marrow donor
A simple swab or spit test will then determine whether you’re likely to be a match. If you are, then donating bone marrow is a fairly standard procedure these days, almost hassle free for the donor (it’s not a whole lot different to giving blood) and with a good success rate.
Anyone who has European/Southeast Asian heritage – especially with a Portuguese name like De Souza or De Castro – would definitely be of interest. However, all are encouraged to be tested as Nikki’s match may be from someone outside her ethnic grouping or you may save somebody else’s life.
Please register with one of these organisations:
§ UK, aged 16-30: The Anthony Nolan Trust
§ UK, aged 18-49: The British Bone Marrow Registry
§ UK, aged 18-55: Delete Blood Cancer
§ Australia (there’s a large Anglo-Burmese community in Perth): Australian Bone Marrow Donor Registry
§ US: Be the Match
§ Canada: One Match
§ Worldwide: Bone Marrow Donors World Wide
2 – FORWARD this email to everyone you know, and especially anyone who has a Southeast Asian or other minority or mixed race heritage
3 – SHARE my Nikki’s story via the social media channels below to help raise awareness
More on Nikki´s story in her own words, a fuller list of registration centres, and more, at Perfect Ten Match
Yes, climate can change naturally. No, that is not why it’s changing now.
From Geological Society of London blog via my friend Michael Roberts
There aren’t any. Nor can there be. And if anyone can refute me on this, I’ll be delighted. [Update: discussion arising from this post has convinced me that we all use multiple foundations, that they are mutually inconsistent, and that there is no way of choosing between them]
I have just finished reading Kenan Malik’s superb The Quest for a Moral Compass, which I am not competent to review, beyond questioning the judgement of those commentators who have compared it to Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy. Russell is concerned primarily with timeless questions of epistemology, Malik with our present moral confusions. And unlike Russell, Malik doesn’t ignore the existence of China.
Let me add, however, that Malik is not to blame for what follows here.
There are some questions which of their nature cannot be answered. A notorious example is Heidegger’s “Why is there something rather than nothing?” This can never be answered. Because let X be the answer. Then either X is part of the totality denoted by “something”, or it is not. In the first case, part of the explicand is being invoked as the explanation, which is absurd. In the second, X itself remains to be explained, and we are no further forward. There are various ways of cheating at this point, either by allowing X to be eternal, and thus not requiring explanation (Aquinas), or by claiming that X is, in some mysterious sense, “necessary”, and therefore exempt from the need to be explained (William Lane Craig, Plantinga), but neither of these would convince anyone who did not already have faith in the implied First Cause.
I have come to the melancholy conclusion that the question “On what can we base our morality?” comes into the same category. This is not news. It was, in a sense, spelt out by Plato in Euthyphro’s notorious dilemma. Are things good because the gods love them, or do the gods love these things because they are good? In the first case, the moral code is merely a by-product of divine whims, and would change if those whims happened to change. In the second, the gods themselves must be appealing to some higher principle; what is it?
As Malik points out in his masterly demolition of Sam Harris’s philosophical pretensions, the argument generalises. Harris would have us derive morality from science, and in particular from the principle of maximising “the well-being of conscious creatures.” Thus he would in principle justify torture, if it could be demonstrated as an effective way of extracting information, provided the gain in well-being achieved through our possession of the information extracted by it outweighs the victim’s sufferings.
But why should we regard maximising “the well-being of conscious creatures” as our measure of morality, even if we could quantify and define “well-being,” foresee how this would be affected by our actions, and accurately subtract one creature’s loss of well-being from another creature’s gain? As Malik points out, there is no reason why someone who accepts different principles – who regards, for example, inflicting torture as an insult to the nature of humanity that cannot be justified under any circumstances – should regard Harris’s arguments as the least bit convincing. As Malik puts it, Euthyphro’s dilemma applies with as much force to the appeal to the results of science, as it does to the appeal to the will of the gods.
Nor can we derive a solution from appealing to evolution, or to the nature of our humanity, or to the dynamics of history. It is perfectly possible to maintain, indeed I myself do maintain, that xenophobia is the result of evolutionary hardwiring, but nonetheless morally wrong. And few would maintain that to explain, for example, Stalin, or the Islamic State, in terms of historical forces is in any way to justify them.
And we can generalise. The same argument applies to any purported criterion for distinguishing right from wrong. We cannot live without moral principles, any more than we can live without confidence in the constancy of the laws of nature, but in neither case is it possible to justify our position without circularity. Perhaps we simply need to live with these uncomfortable truths.
To return to our starting point, the question “How do we justify our morality?” does not admit of an answer that does not beg the question. Because let X be the answer. Then either X is part of our moral code, or it is not. In the first case, we are invokingas justification part of what we are seeking to justify, and the most we can achieve in this way is consistency, not validation. In the second, X itself remains to be justified, and we are no further forward.
Which is simply an involved way of saying that there are no moral facts, only moral choices. And those who think otherwise scare me, even when they share my code.
The Quest for a Moral Compass, Kenan Malik, hardback Atlantic Books, May 2014; paperback April 2015. Disclosure: I bought the hardback version, but I’m a slow reader. Extracts from the book are being made available on Kenan Malik’s onw website, starting, coincidentally, today.
“And if he insists on being killed … then at the end, by the authority of the ruling body, it’s done.”
Sheikh Kamal El Mekki, who expounds with apparent approval the law on beheading ex-Muslims, spoke this February at Trinity College Dublin. Maryam Namazie, equal law campaigner, ex-Muslim and prominent critic of political Islam, was, after agreeing to speak in March, presented with conditions impossible to accept. We know from Trinity News, the excellent student newspaper, that El Mekki’s talk went ahead without restrictions despite concerns expressed by the President of the Students Union. We know from Maryam’s blog that her talk was cancelled, by the College, not her, and that she remains eager to speak there.
An earlier version of this post appeared on 3 Quarks Daily, and was sent on Monday March 30 to the three TDC staff named here, with invitation to comment. None has chosen to do so. So today, April 6, I am sending them this version.
El Mekki is on video (embedded in the Trinity newspaper report; also circulating under the curious title “The apostate – funny”), at an event organised by the AlMaghrib Institute (of which more below) in July 2011, describing how he explained to a Christian missionary the law about apostasy. The missionary was complaining because of his lack of success in Morocco, which he attributed to the law  against apostasy. In reply, El Mekki, visibly amused at the missionary’s predicament, draws an analogy between apostasy and treason (a justification that when examined makes matters worse), and goes on to explain
It’s not like somewhere you heard someone leaves Islam and you just go get him and stuff like that. First of all it’s done by the authorities, there are procedures and steps involved. First of all they talk to him, yeah, about, yanni, the scholars refute any doubt that he has on the issue, they spend days with him refuting and arguing with him, trying to convince him. Then they might even, yanni, threaten him with the sword and tell him ‘You need to repent from this because if you don’t you repent you will be killed.’ And if he insists on being killed that means really, really believing in that. And then, after the procedures take their toll, and then at the end, by the authority of the ruling body, it’s done.
“Yanni,” a common interection in Arabic, means “kind of.” I wonder how one “kind of” threatens someone with the sword. However, we are left with the impression that El Mekki would be opposed to recent well-publicised Jihadist beheadings, not out of any objection to beheading as such, but because of failure to conform to the proper procedures.
An on-line search also led me to here, where you can see El Mekki explaining why amputation is a more humane form of punishment than imprisonment.
Sheikh El Mekki’s response to criticism was reported by the student newspaper. He said that the clip had been taken out of context and was an excerpt from a 39-hour course in which apostasy is dealt with twice, and wrote in response to questioning
[In the clip,] I first deal with the issue from the historical standpoint as you have seen, and then I revisit the issue for the sole purpose of explaining to students that apostasy law is not something that we advocate, nor is it something that we are trying to revive or practice. You will be surprised how many people I’ve met while I was the chaplain at George Mason University, who thought they had the right to carry out that law in America…. I believe the best way to stop extremism is through moderate Muslims and Imams speaking against it.
I leave it to readers to evaluate this claim to be a moderate in the light of his views on amputation and beheading. For the full text of El Mekki’s statement, see Footnote .
El Mekki spoke at Trinity on February 25 at an event, open to all, jointly organised by the Muslim Students Association and a body called the alMaghrib Institute; for one of many critiques from within Islam of this Insititute’s strict Salafism, see this, from the al Sunna Forum. (Salafism is a rigid, fundamentalist, anti-intellectual form of Islam, closely related to the Wahhabism of Saudi Arabia.) It was the alMaghrib Institute that had earlier hosted his remarks on beheading and amputation. It has branches in 12 countries, including the US, the UK, Ireland, Australia and Canada. and offers its own degree and diplomas, the curriculum for which includes a module on “Signs of the last day”, which are “All Around Us”.
Trinity News reported that eight students had expressed concerns over El Mekki’s visit, among them the President of the Student Union, and an ex-Muslim student who is not willing to be named because of the implications for his own safety. However, Joseph O’Gorman, strategic development officer for the Central Societies Committee (CSC), told McGlacken-Byrne that he “cannot see why there can even be a discussion about cancelling the event or not”. According to the CSC web page , Mr O’Gorman
is responsible for the development of the CSC’s long term strategy. The SDO [Strategic Development officer, i.e., currently, O’Gorman] ensures that the support that the CSC gives societies matches their needs as much as possible. The SDO works with the College Civic Development Officer and the Dean of Students to ensure that College neither forgets the importance of societies to the well-being of students and of the College nor that societies exist for students not for College’s own strategic aims. The SDO is responsible for the training and mentoring of the CSC Executive and Officers.
Maryam Namazie (shown R at the Council of ex-Muslims of Britain’s 5th anniversary meeting) is an outspoken ex-Muslim, vocal opponent of the creeping institutionalisation of Sharia law in British society, and well-known activist on behalf of freedom of thought, women’s rights, and human rights in general. (I have written here before about her role in the successful campaign to persuade London’s Law Society to withdraw its ill-judged guidance on the drafting of Sharia-based wills.) She was invited to speak at Trinity College Dublin on March 23rd, and the event was openly advertised by Maryam and on the inviting society’s Facebook page.
After she had already bought her ticket, she was contacted by that society, to tell her that Trinity was imposing conditions on her talk. In Maryam’s words on her own blog and also on the One Law for All website,
I’ve just been informed, however, that college security (why security?) has claimed that the event would show the college is “one-sided” and would be “antagonising” to “Muslim students”; they threatened to cancel my talk. After further consultation with college management, they have decided to “allow” the event to go ahead with the following conditions:
* All attendants of the event must be 1) Trinity students and 2) members of the society hosting the talk.
* For “balance”, they require that a moderator host the event; Prof. Andrew Pierce of the Irish School of Ecumenics has kindly agreed to do so.
I, however, will not be submitting to any conditions, particularly since such conditions are not usually placed on other speakers.
I intend to speak on Monday as initially planned without any restrictions and conditions and ask that TCD give me immediate assurances that I will be able to do so.
Dr Andrew Pierce is an Assistant Professor in Ecumenics, and Course Co-Ordinator of the M.Phil. in Intercultural Theology & Interreligious Studies. It is not clear whether he was aware that he had been invited to moderate behind Maryam’s back. If he was not aware, he should say so. If he was aware, he has betrayed his academic calling by colluding in this disgraceful episode.
It is worth reiterating that, although the ostensive issue was security, Noel McCann, the TCD Facilities Officer, told one of the students involved in organising the event that Maryam’s talk would (unlike El Mekki’s?) show the college as “one-sided” and would be “antagonising” to “Muslim students”. He also asked how “could she come and say whatever she wants without a moderator” and “with half the world knowing about it”. He also threatened to cancel the talk and said that he was meeting with “highest management of Trinity” to discuss whether the event would be “allowed” to go ahead.
On learning that Maryam refused to accept these conditions, Trinity revoked the invitation, while leaving the student society involved and Trinity News under the impression that it was Maryam who had withdrawn.
In truth, Maryam remains eager to speak at TCD, as initially arranged and without imposed conditions, and has said so repeatedly.
So there we have it. According to TCD’s criteria, it is legitimate for a college society to host, at an open meeting, someone who gives every impression of approving the idea of cutting Maryam’s head off, provided due procedures are followed. However, Maryam herself is such a dangerous character that her presence requires a moderator, and the well-being of students demands that only members of the society that had invited her be exposed to her opinions.
I am sending Prof Pierce, Joseph O’Gorman, and Noel McCann copies of this piece, and invite their comments.
Disclosure: I have met Maryam and we have corresponded several times. I have not met or corresponded with any of the other individuals named here.
1] Laws Criminalizing Apostasy in Selected Jurisdictions (Law Library of Congress, May 2014) reports that
Morocco does not impose the death penalty against apostates under the provisions of its Penal Code. However, in April 2013, the Supreme Council of Religious Scholars issued a religious decree (fatwa) that Moroccan Muslims who leave Islam must be sentenced to death. Religious decrees are significant because Islam is the official state religion under article 3 of the Moroccan Constitution of 2011.54 Additionally, under article 41 of the Constitution, the Supreme Council of Religious Scholars “is the sole instance enabled [habilitée] to comment [prononcer] on religious consultations (Fatwas).”
Apostasy is explicitly punishable by death according to the legal codes of Afghanistan, Brunei, Mauritania, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen. In Maryam’s native Iran,
While Iranian law does not provide for the death penalty for apostasy, the courts can hand down that punishment, and have done so in previous years, based on their interpretation of Sharia’a law and fatwas (legal opinions or decrees issued by Islamic religious leaders).
2] This, posted by a student on Facebook, is the fullest version I could find of El Mekki’s explanation:
That clip you watched was a five-minute excerpt from a 39 hour course in which apostasy is dealt with twice. I first deal with the issue from a historical standpoint as you have seen, and then I revisit the issue for the sole purpose of explaining to students that apostasy law is not something that we advocate, nor is it something that we are trying to revive or practise. You will be surprised how many people I’ve met while I was the chaplain at George Mason University, who felt they had the right to carry out that law! I believe that part of my responsibility as an educator is to work against any aspect that may lead to the radicalisation of Muslims. I have an entire course where one of the main themes is that bringing Sharia Law to the west has never been one of the objectives of Islam. At the end of the day, you find yourself attacked by Jihadi’s [sic] and extremists on the one end, and misquoted by those who have other agendas on the other. I make the above points crystal clear to students, but I have no control over which clips people isolate and pulled on the internet; and definitely no control over those who purposely take them out of context! Extremism is something that needs to be dealt with, yet those who deal with it in the Muslim communities are misquoted and made to appear as the ones that should be stopped from speaking. Doesn’t seem conducive to ending the problems that plague us! I will continue to be vocal and speak and critique what is wrong. I have not spared any one or group that advocates violence and that is what all our [the al-Maghribi Institute’s] instructors continue to do.
(I would invite readers to watch the clips in question, if they wish to evaluate this explanation.)
Yes, today is April 1st. No, this is not a joke.
The Reverend David Fraser sat until last year as a full voting member on the Education Committee of Clackmannanshire County Council. So if you live in Clackmannanshire, he helped decide educational policy for your children, and if you teach in Clackmannanshire, he was, in a sense, your boss.
(Past tense; according to LinkedIn, he relinquished his place on the Committee in 2014. I do not know if my previous expose’ contributed to this, and will be making fuller enquiries when I am back in Scotland with better web access)
Be afraid. Be very afraid. What you see next is straight from the Reverend’s Church’s web site. And there’s worse to come.
|THE COUNTER TO THE SIDE IS TICKING OFF THE NUMBER OF PEOPLE WHO HAVE DIED SINCE YOU OPENED THIS WEBPAGE. THE VAST MAJORITY OF THOSE PEOPLE ARE ENTERING HELL. CHRIST COMMANDED HIS FOLLOWERS TO SHARE THE GOSPEL WITH THOSE WHO ARE PERISHING… WHO HAVE YOU SHARED WITH TODAY?|
And as for Noah’s Ark, a search on “Alva Baptist Genesis” turned up this:
(What is shown here is an earlier model. There is now a full size version of the Ark, certified as seaworthy, but what many visitors may not realise is that these Arks are wooden skins over steel supports and resting on barges). The same web page links us to a video in which we are told that “Experts are 99.9% sure” that they have found fragments of Noah’s ark on – where else? – the slopes of Mount Ararat 2 1/2 miles above sea level. Straw in the wreckage is said to radicarbon date to “when Noah was afloat”, and “Skeptics are, as usual, skeptical, but for those who believe in the Bible literally, Noah’s Ark is a major find.”
The Reverend David Fraser is a Baptist, but this is an extremely broad description. For example, Steve Chalke, who was recently drummed out of the Evangelical Alliance for rejecting biblical literalism, is a Baptist minister. So to see what David Fraser believes, we have to dig a little deeper.
Fraser hails from Metro Calvary Church, Los Angeles, whose statement of belief includes biblical infallibility and inerrancy, obviously to be taken in a literal sense, a historical Adam and Eve, and that “man is totally depraved and of himself utterly unable to remedy his lost condition.” The Church also believes ” in the bodily resurrection of both the just and the unjust — the unjust to judgment and eternal conscious punishment in the lake of fire”.
You may be wondering why someone who believes that children are totally depraved and, unless they receive justification through God’s grace, are destined to eternal punishment in the Lake of Fire, is doing sitting on an Education Committee, rather than being locked away from them at a safe distance. Let me explain.
The educational systems of both England and Scotland emerged in something like their present forms in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, by the coming together of secular and church schools (a process that the last two administrations have done much to reverse). This led to the representation, as prior stakeholders, of the Churches. But which Churches?
In England, the answer was obvious; Church of England, and Roman Catholic.
And so, to this day, every Local Education Authority in England has, by law, one full voting member appointed by the local Catholic diocese, and one appointed by Church of England.
In Scotland, as the diagram here shows, it’s more complicated. From the Great Disruption of 1843 onwards, the dominant Presbyterian church in Scotland was split between two major factions; the Church of Scotland, and the Free Church (after 1900, the United Free Church) of
Scotland. This schism was not healed until 1929, after the original Church of Scotland was disestablished. Meantime, various factions had split off in the process, to give a bewildering collection of splinter groups, mainly theologically conservative and even biblical literalist, as is the faction that, after a legal battle that went all the way to the United Kingdom’s highest court, won the right to call itself, at it still does, The Free Church of Scotland.
So during the formative years of the State school system, there were two major contenders for the role of leading Protestant Church in Scotland, and for this reason, to this day,
every local authority in Scotland (i.e., now, every Council) must have, on its Education Committee, three religious appointees, one Roman Catholic, one Church of Scotland, and one other.
The rules for pointing this “other” vary from authority to authority, but with major over-representation of the splinter groups referred to above, and their allies among theologically conservative Baptists such as David Fraser.
When, today, I checked on the website of David Fraser’s Alva Baptist Church, it had become much more difficult to navigate. It still tells us that ” We believe that God has big plans for this wee church and town of Alva”, but links to the Church’s specific beleifs, and to the Reverend’s “complete profile”, were dead. However, “Evangelical resources” took me to a page for Ray Comfort’s Living Waters, which in turn took me to the hard line Creationist Evolution Vs. God, endorsed by Answers in Genesis, the Institute for Creation Research, and Creation Today. All of whom believe, and consider it praiseworthy to believe, that all people and animals on Earth today are descended from a handful in the Ark who survived a world-wide flood covering the mountain tops, just at the very same time that the Egyptians, miraculously unperturbed, were in the middle of building the Pyramids.
And David Fraser, let me remind you, sits unelected on, and has full voting rights on, the Education Committee that decides policies and spending priorities for Clackmannanshire.
Nor is he unique. Among other examples, representatives on the Councils of Falkirk and North Ayrshire maintain that unbelief will be justly punished by a Hell that is physical, literal, and eternal. In South Lanarkshire, home to the Kirktonholme scandal, Nagy Iskander maintains that science and biblical creationism have the same degree of intellectual merit.
And the voice of these unelected representatives is no minor matter, since, as the Church of Scotland tells us, they hold the balance of power in 19 out of Scotland’s 32 Council Education Committees.
Is this what we really want?
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.
Grandmother 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Disclosure: this review is of the first Kindle edition, personal purchase.
These reviews first appeared here, on 3 Quarks Daily
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…
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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.
Originally posted on Peddling and Scaling God and Darwin:
Here’s the latest picture doing the rounds to show earthquake damage done by fracking
Or more clearly ;
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
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…
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