Monthly Archives: November 2012

Anti-Creationists need to think about tactics

By Paul Braterman and Mark Edon. This piece first appeared on November 30, 2012, on the BCSE website.

 We write here as individual non-believers in support of the “accommodationist” position taken by the British Centre for Science Education (BCSE), on whose committee both of us serve.  We consider that there are over-riding tactical and strategic reasons for this position.  As non-believers defending science, we are being unreasonable if we criticise the godly for failing to combat Creationism, and then, for fear of ideological impurity, refuse to link arms with them when they do.

Followers of the political & religious controversy surrounding evolution [1] will be aware of a subsidiary debate amongst those who do accept modern science, that encompasses such issues as; “Is it possible to believe in god and accept the science?”, “Should the objective of the debate be the acceptance of science or the rejection of god?” and “What is the best way to get people to accept the science?

The British Centre for Science Education  (BCSE), comprising volunteers from science, education and business backgrounds, is a single purpose organisation.  Our objective, shared by our members regardless of their religious position, is to keep Creationism out of UK schools.  The simple fact is that the Government (in its policy statements at least), other mainstream political parties in the UK, the established Church and other mainstream churches all agree on this.  In the UK, only a minority of self-identified Christians think that creationism should be taught, while Young Earth creationists complain that the vast majority of evangelicals reject their doctrine.

The current Coalition Government Free School and Academy programs have given Creationists in the UK opportunities that they had never previously dreamt of and, through what we sincerely hope is mere oversight, July 2012 saw the first crypto-Creationist free school applications approved.  They will be getting tax payers’ money to teach children, at the expense of the local authority education budget, although the local authority will have no control over them and at this stage no-one knows what they will teach.

The BCSE wants to campaign against Creationism in a way that unites the widest possible range of opinion and so we don’t campaign for or against any of the following; atheism, religion, faith schools, free schools or academies, although many members and committee members hold strong views on many of these issues.

If you look at the activities of Creationists here in the UK you can see that their main campaigning tactic is to present themselves as Christians making perfectly reasonable requests about education policy, all in the spirit of fairness, whilst being attacked by militant atheists.

So it is in these circumstances that the BCSE campaigns against Creationism with all and any who will agree with us on this issue, regardless of any disagreement on other issues.  This means we are neutral on matters of religion and we are glad to work with the religious and non-religious alike.  The CrISIS campaign, in which we took part last year, which culminated in a letter to Michael Gove signed by the National Secular Society, Richard Dawkins, Jim Al-Khalili, Susan Blackmore, Andrew Colman, David Colquhoun, Christopher French, Adam Hart -Davis, Julian Huppert MP, The Rev Canon Theologian David Jennings, Steve Jones, Dr Stephen Law, Clifford Longley, the Rev Michael Roberts, Simon Singh MBE, Canon Theologian Keith Ward, and education lecturer James D.  Williams, exemplifies this, as did a similarly broad-based subsequent campaign, which we supported, by the British Humanist Association.

BCSE’s experience of working with representatives of the clear majority of the religious population in the UK that accept the science, and our knowledge that UK Creationists unremittingly promote an “Atheists versus Christians” narrative during recruitment and campaigning, has lead us to often repeat the fact that the majority of religious people have no problem with the science.

These two aspects of what we do: 1) working with the religious and non-religious alike, 2) pointing out that accepting the science is fine with the established church and the large majority of the religious, are far from protecting us against criticism.

Creationists still accuse us of promoting an atheistic ideology, and even level this charge against ordained ministers and other committed believers amongst our members but then they do the same to that vast majority of Christians who accept the science, and even the (outgoing) Archbishop of Canterbury is not spared.  Some nonbelievers label us “accommodationists” for working with the religious and for not arguing against the existence of god, claiming that because religion is correlated with Creationism the only way to counter Creationism is to campaign against religion.  For want of a better label, we will refer to nonbelievers in this camp as “anti-theists”, in the belief that many already call themselves this and that it doesn’t offend or mislead.  This seems less clumsy than “anti-accommodationists”.  If a better label exists we will happily adopt it.  Whilst we are on the subject of labels, we reserve the term “Creationists” for those who deny the well-established science of evolution and common descent, and, in many cases, of an ancient earth and even more ancient Universe. This is quite different from the philosophical creationism that accepts these realities, but sees them as, ultimately, the work of a deity.  Some who should know better seem unsure of the difference between these positions and thereby play into the hands of the enemies of reason.

Unfortunately, anti-theists or those who can be labelled as such, when campaigning against Creationism, are vulnerable to the line invariably taken by Creationists that they are just Atheists persecuting Christians.  Thus our good friend Richy Thomson, BHAFaithSchools and Education campaigner, found himself outmanoeuvred in a radio phone-in discussion of a proposed Creationist school in Sheffield, when the advocate of Creationism change the terms of debate by pointing out that his opponent was against faith schools and religion in general.  Similarly, when a Creationist on Radio Five was asked to say if he wanted Creationism taught in science classes or not, he ignored the question and claimed that the BHA was prejudiced when evaluating the scientific evidence and wanted to restrict the rights of the religious.  The correct response would be to point out that the large majority of religious people think that Creationism is silly too, perhaps with some examples but again the point at issue was lost.  While only a very tiny minority of people are pushing Creationism into UK schools, they create the illusion of broad support by such muddling of issues.

It is worth stating plainly here that the BCSE neither calls for the religious to give up their faith (indeed, how could it, given the range of opinions in its membership?) nor for the anti-theists to stop campaigning against it.

It seems to us that the Creationists adopt the “Atheist versus Christians” tactic at every available opportunity for two good reasons.

First of all, the conflict and persecution narrative aids recruitment and engenders zeal, especially among the many potential recruits who are at difficult points in their own lives.  Creationist organisers know that being part of a valiant band struggling against the odds offers both a sense of belonging and the chance for the leaders to prove their honesty and intelligence by accurately predicting ridicule and rudeness from people outside the group.  In this way the weirder the claims, the stronger the ridicule, and the more strongly members are driven into the group.  This is why you find so many Creationist groups publicising the fact of their opponents calling them names.

Secondly, and more at issue here, the conflict narrative very often means the public debate can be swiftly moved away from “Creationism is daft” to genuine Atheist versus Christian issues such as faith schools.  Creationists know that in such debates they are part of a much larger and more respectable group and readily identify themselves as simply “Christians”.

So how should we proceed?

There seems to be agreement amongst anti-theists and accommodationists that some Creationists can be won over to accept the science, although both sides currently see this as a rare event and base their claims upon anecdotes [2].  Is loss of faith or is accommodation of science with religious belief the reason for such changes of mind? Well, the anecdotes suggest both are possible paths that individuals do travel.  However we still have no quantitative data on the reasons why, despite this obviously being of great interest to all.

A recent paper in Evolution Education and Outreach by Southcott and Downie [3] does give us some hints at data on this topic, but not much more than a reason for more research.

The data relates to biology students at GlasgowUniversity between 1987 and 2011 who rejected evolution.  Here are a few highlights but please go and read the thing for yourselves if you are interested.

First of all things that anti-theists and accommodationists agree on:

From the abstract.

Evolution rejection was closely related to accepting a religion-based alternative, whereas acceptance was related to finding the evidence convincing.  Although many religious students accepted evolution, 50% of Islamic students were rejecters, compared to 25% of Christians.

Anti-theists seem to go on from this to deduce that as Creationism comes from religion you must counter religious belief to counter Creationism.  This simply does not follow.

A question testing acceptance of several scientific propositions showed no evidence that evolution rejecters were generally more skeptical of science than accepters.

That is surprising, although it could be that evolution rejecters were simply unaware of the full implications of their position.  Moving on.

A breakdown of evolution into three components (human origins, macroevolution, and microevolution) found that some evolution rejecters accepted some components, with microevolution having the highest acceptance and human origins the lowest.  These findings are discussed in terms of strategies for evolution education and the phenomenon of evolution rejection worldwide.

This reflects the common Creationist tactics of claiming to accept micro evolution so as to avoid the appearance of rejecting all evidence out of hand.

Now some highlights from the rest of the paper.  Rejection of evolution at GlasgowUniversity is running at between 3.9% and 4.4% in samples taken irregularly between 1987 and 2011 (they used some data from previous studies for comparison) and from the small numbers available it seems that Islamic students are about twice as likely as Christian students to reject evolution.

The overall level of students with a religion was down over the various study years and the association of religion with evolution denial strengthened.

This next bit made us sit up and pay attention (our emphasis);

All level 4 [now in their final year at uni] rejectors belonged to “low evolution” degree programs.  It is clear that for most of them, no amount of scientific evidence would overcome their beliefs, a more entrenched position even than that taken by level 1 rejecters.” (“Low evolution” here describes courses such as psychology or pharmacology, as opposed to, say, zoology.)

So it would appear that logical and evidence based argument is futile with these folks.

This next bit was also very interesting.

By level 4, our evolution rejection sample size was very small, but the importance of a belief precluding evolution remained the main factor.  Our sample size for switching from rejection to acceptance was also small (n=7), but it is fascinating that these students were less affected by scientific evidence than by a realization that evolution and their religious beliefs were not in conflict.

So for these students in Glasgow, reaching some kind of personal accommodation between the science and their faith was the path to accepting evolution.

This next finding fits in with recent survey findings for the UK population as a whole.

It is worth emphasizing that, although evolution rejection was strongly associated with holding a religious belief, the majority of believers accepted evolution.

These are the results of just a few surveys in one university and more research will be required to inform appropriate educational strategies.

In the meantime we have a political battle on our hands and this article lays out the reasons why opponents of Creationism in publicly funded schools in the UK should think carefully about their tactics.

In summary, the reasons for even the most dedicated opponents of religion to adopt accommodationism in the political fight against Creationism are twofold.

  • Tactical advantage gained by appealing to a huge majority support by including the religious non Creationists.
  • Strategic advantage as the Creationists are denied one of their main recruitment and retention tactics and we give ourselves the best chance of reducing their hardcore support.

Anti-theist groups need no permission from us to continue their own wider campaigns and agendas but they should seriously consider working with an accommodationist umbrella group like the BCSE to maximise their political effectiveness in this particular fight.

As for the situation at the time of writing, BCSE strongly supports the BHA campaign of protest against the recent decision to allow Creationist groups to open Free Schools, while (in accord with the spirit of this article) drawing attention to the fact that the issue here is not religion versus irreligion, but science versus the denial of science.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

1  but which on examination includes the denial of such vast swathes of modern science including physics, earth sciences and cosmology as they all speak to an old earth, plus so many other related disciplines, that one might as well say that such deniers simply reject science.

2 See Richard Dawkins converts corner for examples of loss of faith and the BCSE community forum for examples of both kinds.

3 Southcott, R.  & Downie, J., Evolution and Religion: Attitudes of Scottish Bioscience Students to the Teaching of Evolutionary Biology, Evolution: Education and Outreach, Springer New York, 1936-6426, pp.  1-11, http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s12052-012-0419-9 , Doi: 10.1007/s12052-012-0419-9

Jerry Coyne in Glasgow on Why Evolution is True, an unauthorised summary

This is my unauthorised summary of the talk that Jerry Coyne gave to the Glasgow Skeptics on Monday, November 26. It is no substitute for reading his outstanding book, Why Evolution is True, but I for one found it useful to see the arguments collated so succinctly.

Jerry discussed the distinction between the common and the scientific use of the terms “true” and “theory”. True, he suggested, means so well supported by evidence that it would be perverse to deny it. In principle all scientific truths are provisional because revisable, but IMO that is no reason for scientists to sound tentative all the time, since the same can be said of all our claims to knowledge about the world. Theories in science, as he very clearly explained, are the conceptual frameworks that we set up to make sense of facts, but in contrast to the common use of the word carry no suggestion of uncertainty. Examples are atomic theory, and the germ theory of disease, as well as the theory of evolution. He then went on to say that evolution had moved from theory to fact. This I think is a philosophical category mistake, though I am not sure that this matters to anyone except philosophers. I prefer to distinguish between the facts of evolution (e.g. the historical facts of shared ancestry) and the theory (referring to a historical context, or else meaning specifically the overarching conceptual framework).

The theory of evolution has five components:

  • Evolution, i.e. change in populations, happens.
  • The process is gradual, taking hundreds or thousands of years, or longer.
  • Evolution leads to speciation, i.e. to the separation of an ancestral species into two descendants.
  • As a corollary, distinct species share common ancestors, and indeed all life on Earth shares a common ancestry.
  • Natural selection is a major driver of evolution, and is the sole process that causes adaptation and the appearance of design.

(I would note here that there is room for fruitful disagreement, since other reputable biologists come up with different definitions. I also wonder whether adaptation, like speciation, is much more easily recognised after the fact, and whether, given the existence of non-adaptive drift, the linking of adaptation to selection is tautologous.)

This theory makes a number of predictions:

  • The first life forms should be simple, with complexity increasing with time in the fossil record.
  • Lineages should change and split. Example, split in Rhizosolenia, an indicator species diatom whose changes can be followed in ocean core samples
  • Common ancestry implies the existence of transitional forms, such as feathered dinosaurs. These need not necessarily be at the actual point of speciation, but can be identified by their possession of some of the traits that became specific to their descendants. Example, Sinornithosaurus, a flightless feathered dinosaur, intermediate between theropods and birds.
  • These transitional forms should appear at the right time in the fossil record. Example, 10 major intermediate forms in the correct order over a 48 million year window between a terrestrial ancestor, identified by details of ear structure, and present-day whales. Another example; the discovery exactly where predicted, in Devonian strata, of lobefish-tetrapod intermediates [see Your Inner Fish, by Jerry’s colleague Neil Shubin]
  • The course of evolution should leave bad designs in place. Examples, the male human prostate which unnecessarily surrounds the urethra and presses up against the bladder; ear wiggling muscles which only some of us can operate
  • We should be able to see evolution occurring, as in Lenski’s work. We have even observed 300 cases, in a relatively short time that we have been carrying out observations. Under strong selection pressure, we can see changes within a single generation, as with the Galapagos finches faced with changes in the kinds of food available.

There are also examples of retrodictions, things that are not strictly predictions, but make sense only in the light of evolution. These include:

  • The appearance in embryos of ancestral features not present in the organism itself. Examples include hindlimb buds on embryo dolphins, and body hair and tail on human embryos.
  • The presence of vestigial organs, such as hindlimb and pelvis bones in the grey whale, unconnected to the rest of the skeleton.
  • The presence of “dead” (identifiable but non-functioning) genes corresponding to capacities present in ancestors but now lost, including, in humans, genes involved in vitamin C synthesis and some of those involved in the development of olfactory receptors. Human embryos at four weeks include a yolk sac, and humans have dead genes for yolk production.
  • Biogeography, including in particular the difference between continental islands, whose fauna relate to that of the landmass to which they were once joined, and oceanic islands, whose endemic fauna are restricted to species such as birds and insects capable of migrating across the open ocean, although other species can flourish and even become plague species when introduced by humans. This is an argument that the creationists have not even attempted to answer.
  • Bad design, as evolution is constrained by its past.

One significant prediction is that we should be able, to the extent that our short observation time permits, to see evolution in action, and this is what happens.

The question of the origin of new information came up in questioning. Jerry gave as an example what happens after gene duplication; the two copies can become selected for different functions, as in the variations of haem proteins. (My own favourite example is the duplication and reduplication giving rise to Photosystems I and II, each of which contain two distinct but related subsystems.)

If evolution is a scientific theory, it must be open to falsification. (Here Jerry follows Popper, whose views I think are now regarded as too simple. Theories of merit are generally modified, or subsumed within larger theories, rather than being simply rejected in the face of counterexamples. I would argue that the theory of evolution has been modified, to include such factors as neutral drift, much as atomic theory has been modified to take account of transmutation, but that such modifications are in no way a sign of weakness.) Possible falsifiers include:

  • Fossils in the wrong place.
  • Adaptations within a species that benefited only some other species, or, more generally, that conveyed no advantage to their possessors or their relatives, or that could not be achieved step-by-step.
  • Absence of genetic variation.

Again, I see room for fruitful disagreement, in particular about what would falsify, and what would merely require minor tinkering. A number of questions come to mind. Would group selection require rejection of the theory, as I think Jerry was close to suggesting?

Jerry Coyne at the Glasgow Skeptics – a personal account

Monday night, November 26, I had the great pleasure of hearing Jerry Coyne at the Glasgow Skeptics on the subject of  Why Evolution is True (And Why Most People Don’t Believe It), and had a short enjoyable chat with him in the interval. This report reflects his views, and on occasion mine. To avoid misunderstanding, I should emphasise that it does not represent BCSE as an organisation, which is neutral on matters of faith.

He was aware of and approved of the broad coalition, ranging from Richard Dawkins to Canons of the Church of England, that forced the UK Government to clarify its position against creationism. I had to tell him that Gove had nonetheless ignored his own guidelines by allowing creationist groups to set up publicly funded schools. We had some discussion about whether different religions had different degrees of tolerance towards evolution; I suggested that the reason I was much more accommodationist than him, is that for me religion suggested positions like C of E, whereas for him it suggested anti-intellectual fundamentalism. He seemed to take kindly to this idea, and also to my suggestion that different varieties of religion may differ greatly in their willingness to accept evolution.

Most of his talk covered much the same ground as his book, Why Evolution is True (a must read if you haven’t already), though I certainly benefited from seeing the argument laid out in such concentrated form, and am posting my notes on this part of the talk separately.

Jerry quoted depressing statistics, mainly from the US, about how few people accepted evolution and how many preferred creationism. According to a 2005 Harris poll, only 12% of Americans thought that only evolution should be taught in schools, while 23% thought that only creationism should be taught, and most wanted both.

Why does this matter? Because evolution is a matter of self-knowledge, basic knowledge about what kind of place the Universe is, and our place in it. It is a wonderful example of science in action, and besides, there’s a lot of cool stuff in there.

After discussing the science, he made some very interesting observations about how societies react to it. Given that the evidence for evolution is so overwhelming, why do so many people continue to deny it, and why are the numbers so slow to change? In the US, since 1982, the proportion of creationists has held steady at 44%, those believing in theistic evolution has changed from 38% to 36%, and the only notable change has been an increase in acceptance of materialistic evolution from 9% to 14%, no doubt reflecting the growing number of unbelievers. (I think that the preference for theistic over naturalistic evolution may be less worrying than it sounds, since I doubt if many people distinguish between overall divine control of nature, which would be perfectly compatible with naturalistic evolution, and specific supernatural intervention in the process, which would not).

Clearly, a situation where more Americans believe in the reality of angels than accept evolution is deeply worrying.

So why is evolution so maligned by religion? Because it undermines religious views of human specialness, and of the purpose and meaning of individual life, and (a common and deeply felt objection) is seen as undermining morality. If we compare different countries, religious belief has a powerful negative correlation with acceptance of evolution. It would follow that if we want people to accept evolution, what we need to do is weaken the influence of religion. In support, Jerry quoted a survey according to which, if faced with a scientific finding that contradicted the tenets of their faith, 64% of Americans said that they would reject the finding.

What I found most interesting was Jerry’s quoting from recent (2009 and 2011) studies, showing that religion correlates with social dysfunction (see http://www.epjournal.net/wp-content/uploads/EP073984414.pdf ) and economic inequality (see http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1540-6237.2011.00777.x/abstract ; cut and paste links if necessary). If so, the way to improve public acceptance of science may be to tackle inequality and social dysfunction. This would point in the direction of very broad alliances indeed, and I can see how recent political campaigns in the US may have made this prospect more attractive.

We are left with a final paradox. People fear evolution, seeing it as subversive of morality. And yet, the more moral (in the matters that seem to me most important), the more equitable, and the more effectively functioning a society, the more accepting it is of evolution.

Creationism as conspiracy theory, and the teaching of the Urey-Miller experiment

Some time, you may want to start a conspiracy theory. If you want to learn how to do this, you cannot do better than study the antics of the creationists, and especially their Discovery Institute (DI) think tank.

Creationists absolutely need to have a conspiracy theory. That is because their position contradicts everything that scientists have been telling us for the past 200 years, or even, in its Young Earth version, the past 300 years. If creationism is true, the entire intellectual establishment has been lying to you.

All conspiracy theories work the same way. Like the most unpleasant kinds of religion, they divide humanity into two groups, the illuminated and the benighted, and offer membership of the illuminated, if you will only accept their central doctrine. To qualify as a conspiracy theory, that doctrine has to pour scorn on the most obvious or scientifically validated explanations of the facts, and replace them with the belief that these explanations, or indeed these facts, are fabricated by a close-knit group of wicked people (in this case, the Wicked Evolutionists, or WE), cynically manipulating the evidence for their own disreputable reasons. Once this belief is in place, it is self-sustaining, since all evidence to the contrary is tainted, coming as it does from the Unscrupulous Scientists (US).

The next step in setting up your conspiracy theory is to find a group of people who already want to believe you. Most of us, after all, spent most of our thinking time in looking for evidence in favour of what we want to believe. So find a group of people who already have reasons to want your claims to be true. They might, for example, wish to believe that the Government is hiding evidence of UFOs, or that NASA is a giant scam, or Barack Obama should not be President of the United States, or that Government should not interfere with the operations of industry.

Then give them an excuse, however flimsy, for believing. Believing that aliens landed at Roswell, or that the Moon Landings were faked, or that Obama was born in Kenya, or that there is no such thing as man-made global warming. Or, at least, for believing that the topic is controversial. If all else fails, your own voice raised in denial of reality can be used as evidence that the controversy is real.

You’ve now got US in a cleft stick. If WE ignore you, you can continue unchallenged. If WE reply to you, that proves that there really is a controversy. And if WE try to explain that there is nothing worthy of a reply, you can claim, as William Lane Craig claimed when Richard Dawkins refused to debate with him, that WE are scared of you.

Finally, you have to convince your target audience that it matters. Here the creationists have it easy. For most people, at least for most people outside some parts of Western Europe, religion matters. If the Bible is literally true, as a lot of people would like to believe, then evolution is wrong and WE are spreading false doctrine. Moreover, since WE are smart people (no self-respecting conspiracy theory would claim that Nobel Prize winners as a group are stupid), WE must be spreading that false doctrine for non-scientific reasons. And what might that reason be? Obviously, naturalism is a form of materialism which is a form of atheism. It is therefore the scientific, as well as the religious and moral, duty of creationists to refute what WE are saying. Hence the DI’s notorious Wedge Strategy. Refute evolution, and the way is open, as the wedge Document says, to refute “scientific materialism” [emphasis in original] and reinstate “theistic understanding.”

Cover of the Wedge Document.

Time to illustrate by example. And a good example it is; the DI members are really very good at what they do. This one comes from the cover letter that the Discovery Institute recently sent out with its pamphlet for parents, A Parent’s Guide to Intelligent Design. My excuses for publicising here are that it is going to reach its target audience without any help from me, and that this particular example is in fact rather instructive. I take a perverse pleasure in showing ways that we can learn, from creationist materials, what the creationists themselves refuse to learn.

So here it is, reproduced solely for purposes of discussion and review. Emphasis in the original:

Dear [first name]:

 Textbooks and teachers stop teaching myths about evolution when the mainstream media admit textbooks are wrong … don’t they?

Not if the data challenges Darwinian evolution.

… Retelling outdated myths about the Miller-Urey experiment and the origin of life and wrongly telling students the experiment correctly simulated gases present on the early earth …

The evidence challenging evolution is beginning to outweigh the evidence that supports it.  But will your kids learn about that in their science classes?  Unfortunately, probably not.

To help parents understand all the aspects of the debate over Darwinian evolution and intelligent design we created a free 28 page e-booklet A Parent’s Guide to Intelligent Design: Resources to help you and your children understand the debate between Darwinian evolution and intelligent design.

 The free booklet comes with a request to donate, but whether that Discovery Institute really needs that money, or whether it is just another device to generate commitment, we can only speculate.

Let’s look first at the overall structure, and then at the specific claim, (which is actually one of four; but life is short).

Starting off with the initial rhetorical question, and its proposed answer. Here the purpose is clear, while the language, quite deliberately, is not. Note the reference to the mainstream media, suggesting that it is the biology teachers and textbook writers who are the fringe group. The nudge nudge, wink wink, dot dot dot layout establishes intimacy; reader and writer bonded together by a common understanding. Finally, the question and answer format introduces an element of deniability that you will find throughout the creationist literature. “We don’t say evolution is wrong, we just draw attention to all the question marks about it.”

Now to the substance of the claim I’m examining, that the textbooks are “Retelling outdated myths about the Miller-Urey experiment and the origin of life and wrongly telling students the experiment correctly simulated gases present on the early earth.” 30 years ago, this claim might have had some validity, but not now. No matter. Once a claim enters the creationist literature, it takes on a life of its own. For example, Darwin’s lament about the incompleteness of the fossil record in 1859 is repeated as if it described the situation today, despite the existence of tons (literally) of evidence unearthed (literally) to the contrary. So let’s look at what actually happens in the Urey-Miller experiment, what it does or does not tell us, and how it is treated in 21st-century textbooks.

Miller-Urey experiment (1953).

Miller-Urey experiment (1953). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The original report of the Urey-Miller experiment relates it to Harold Urey’s cold accretion theory, which maintained that the planets formed so slowly that the gravitational energy of their formation was dissipated as heat. On this theory, the metal from iron-nickel meteorites would have been lying around on the Earth’s surface giving rise to a strongly reducing (i.e. hydrogen-rich) atmosphere. This theory did not survive the moon landings, and the discovery that most of the moon’s surface consisted of molten basalt. Nor does the experiment address the origin of biological polymers, or of organisation. Nonetheless, the experiment was, and remains, liberating. It destroyed the assumption that the building blocks of life are difficult to come by.

Changes in thinking since then have all been in the direction of making the production of these molecules seem easier. As Stanley Miller himself showed in one of his late (2002) papers, we don’t need a strongly reducing atmosphere. We certainly don’t need ammonia, the least plausible of his original ingredients because it is so readily destroyed by UV light, as long as we have nitrogen, N2, (which we certainly would have) and some source of energy powerful enough to split it into separate atoms (and we would certainly have had that, in the form of the Sun’s unfiltered UV light, back before the formation of atmospheric oxygen and ozone, as well as lightning). We don’t need large amounts of methane. Very small amounts, which could readily arise from geochemical processes (as seems to be happening on Mars), would do the trick, as would carbon monoxide, a component of volcanic gas; it was carbon monoxide that was used in Miller’s 2002 work. Organics could also have arisen by completely different pathways, including reactions at hydrothermal vents, or on sulphide mineral surfaces, and large amounts of organics would in any case have been brought to earth by comets. Comets, after all, are dirty snowballs. The snow is thought to have made a major contribution to the Earth’s oceans, and the dirt is a mixture of organic compounds. Simple organic molecules are a precondition for life as we know it. We do not know the relative contribution of the various possibilities to the inventory of such molecules on the early Earth, but we can feel confident that they were there – one way and/or another.

What about the textbooks? What do they say, what should they be saying, and how much justice, if any, is there in the Discovery Institute’s accusations?

To quote Ken Miller[1], who is, among other things, one of our most influential educators and textbook writers in biological science:

It’s absolutely true, of course, that the strongly reducing atmosphere Miller and Urey used for their first experiments is now not thought to be indicative of the primitive earth.  Therefore, it would be a mistake to claim that these experiments “proved” anything about the actual biochemical pathways to life on earth.

However, these experiments were still absolutely essential in shaping our current views of prebiotic evolution.

Exactly. Urey-Miller demystified the production of the building blocks of life. For some decades, there was rancorous disagreement between those who paid high regard the original experiment, and the geochemists to whom such an atmosphere seemed increasingly implausible. However, once it became clear that the highly reducing atmosphere was no longer even necessary, the dispute faded into the background.

I have looked at half a dozen textbooks. One of them did in fact present the Urey-Miller atmosphere as realistic, which I regard as gross professional incompetence, rather than the deliberate concealment suggested by the creationists. However, even this text did mention reactions at mineral surfaces as an alternative. Every biology textbook that I have examined, with one exception, makes it clear that finding a possible source for the building blocks is not the same as explaining the origins of life. The exception is the 2012 text Evolution – Making Sense of Life, by Carl Zimmer and Douglas Emlen, which presents the isotopic and fossil evidence for Archaean life, but says nothing about its origin. And indeed, why should it? We don’t demand that a chemistry textbook gives an account of the origin of the atoms, nor could it possibly have done so during the 150 or so years between when Dalton put forward the first version of the modern atomic theory, and when Fred Hoyle and co-workers gave the first good account of the origin of elements heavier than helium.

So rest assured that your children’s textbooks will not retell “outdated myths about the Miller-Urey experiment and the origin of life”, but will, on the contrary, carefully distinguish between the formation of prebiotic organic molecules, and the origin of life itself. And even the few texts that are still guilty of “wrongly telling students the experiment correctly simulated gases present on the early earth” are careful to make this distinction.

And the Discovery Institute is doing what they always do superbly. Distorting reality.

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[1] Personal communication

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