Monthly Archives: March 2014

Creationism in schools; good news up to a point on exam censorship and more

Ofqual said schools would no longer be allowed to censor exam questions.

Public pressure works. Readers who followed my earlier suggestion and backed BHA’s Write-to-your-MP campaign, take heart. If you haven’t yet done so, do it now; the message has been updated to cover the most recent developments. And all of us, take note. Publicity, and public reaction, do make a difference.

BHA has told us that the Oxford-Cambridge-RSA Examination Board has reversed its earlier policy of allowing schools to censor its questions because of their religious beliefs, and I do not believe that this would have happened without exposure and public outcry.

Today’s statement from the Board says:

  Last summer we discovered that two schools had redacted questions before the students sat the exams. We immediately launched malpractice investigations and brought the issue to the attention of the Regulator, Ofqual.

 We also alerted Ofsted and the Department for Education as we felt that it raised more general concerns that extended beyond matters of assessment, to the delivery of the National Curriculum and student entitlement. We also raised the issue with our fellow Awarding Bodies.

 We have now been able to consider our position and have concluded that as a matter of policy schools should not be permitted to tamper with question papers prior to a student sitting an exam (in cases where changes are required to facilitate disabled candidate access, adjustments are made by the Awarding Body).

 (Notice, by the way, the reference to two schools. As far as I know, only one of them, Yesodey Hatorah, had become public knowledge.)

There’s more.  Ofqual,the Government body responsible for examination standards, now says

Having looked into the issue, we concluded that while the practice was very rare, it should not be allowed.

Denying learners access to all the questions on a paper prevents the candidate achieving their full potential and therefore disadvantages them. It also threatens the validity of the qualification.

If awarding organisations suspect that schools or centres are redacting exam papers in the future we would expect them to act in the same way as they would for any other case of malpractice.

And more. As BHA reports, the Government has revised the single Academies model funding agreement to bring it in line with the Free Schools model funding agreement in preventing Academies from teaching pseudoscience and to require the teaching of evolution.

Two cheers at best. These requirements apply only to new Academies, not to those already agreed. Nor does it apply to those that are part of chains (yes, we have chains of schools, like chains of supermarkets, in Con-Dem England).  And a further regulation for new individual Free Schools says

The Academy Trust must ensure that so far as is reasonably practicable and consistent with [faith-based admissions, Religious Education and Collective Worship] and the Equality Act 2010, the policies and practices adopted by the Academy (in particular regarding curriculum, uniform and school food) enable pupils of all faiths and none to play a full part in the life of the Academy, and do not disadvantage pupils or parents of any faith or none [emphasis added].

Ominous language.  What if a school claims that it is not practical to teach evolution, or that its ethos requires creationism to be taught as sacred truth in Religious Education? And a further requirement “that principles are promoted which support fundamental British values” raises other concerns, presupposing as they do that Government has the right to define such values.

Nonetheless, the take-home message is clear. Keep pushing. We are not faced, as we should be, with an open door, but neither are we face with one that is securely bolted against us. Numerous issues, which I have mentioned many times, remain, but both Government and other bodies are to some extent at least responsive to public opinion. It is up to us to keep on reminding them that we, the defenders of science, are part of that public.

Photo ALAMY from here

Creationism in the classroom; in 2 minutes you can help stop it; here’s how and why

Readers in England in particular, please write to your MP in support of the BHA campaign to combat Creationism, including Creationism in publicly funded schools; details here. The rest of this post is an explanation of why, shockingly, such action is necessary. In post-principle politics, it would be naive to suggest that this or perhaps any feasible alternative Government is really interested in the merits. The Creationists are a coherent constituency, who make their voices heard. Defenders of scientific reality (regardless of their position on religious matters) must do likewise. Dr Evan Harris assures us, and he should know, that 20 letters to an MP are a lot (Glasgow Skeptics 2011). So the readership of this column, alone, is enough to make a real contribution. Do it. And ask your friends to do likewise.

 The school “will retain its right to censor papers, under agreed conditions.”

Jewish faith school caught censoring questions on science exam papersYesodey Hatorah (Charedi Jewish) Senior Girls School blacked out questions about evolution on pupils’ science exams in 2013. One wonders how this was even possible, given that exam papers are supposed to be sealed until opened at the specified time in the presence of the pupils. However, when the relevant Examination Board, OCR, investigated, they were satisfied that no students had received an unfair advantage, and took no action. The Board now tells Ofqual, the government agency responsible for the integrity of examinations, that it intends “to come to an agreement with the centres concerned which will … respect their need to do this in view of their religious beliefs.” And OCR’s chief executive says the case has “significantly wider implications and could apply to other faith schools.

It gets worse; or perhaps it doesn’t. The school now says that it does teach evolution, but in Jewish Studies, that “there are minute elements within the curriculum which are considered culturally and halachically [in terms of Jewish law] questionable” (evolution a minute element!), that “This system has successfully been in place within the charedi schools throughout England for many years,” and that “we (the school) have now come to an agreement with OCR to ensure that the school will retain its right to censor papers, under agreed conditions.” The latest word, however, is that this agreement, and Ofqual’s acquiescence, may be unravelling under scrutiny, illustrating the importance of public awareness and response.

 Creationist Noah’s Ark Zoo Farm claims 15,000 school visitors annually and boasts of Government body award

Noah's Ark Zoo Farm, Bristol, England, UK         File:NHA.jpg

Noah’s Ark Zoo Farm, near Bristol, which claims to be visited by 15,000 schoolchildren annually, promulgates the view that Noah’s Ark is historic (and indeed, pre-historic), displays posters arguing that apes and humans are too distinct to share a common ancestor, and suggesting how the different kinds of animal could have been housed in the Ark, which it regards as historical (Professor Alice Roberts reported on her own visit last December; I have discussed the Zoo Farm’s reaction to her account) . The giraffes, for instance, would according to one poster have been housed in the highest part of the vessel, next to the T. Rex (Hayley Stevens, private communication).

 This Zoo Farm recently received an award from the Council for Learning Outside the Curriculum, which justified itself by referring to”education that challenges assumptions and allows them to experience a range of viewpoints; giving them the tools needed to be proactive in their own learning and develop skills to enable them to make well informed decisions.” Connoisseurs of creationism will recognise this as a variant of the “teach the controversy” argument, which advocates presenting creationism and real science as alternatives both worthy of consideration, and inviting schoolchildren to choose between them.

 “We do not expect creationism, intelligent design and similar ideas to be taught as valid scientific theories in any state funded school.”

Evolution will become part of the National Curriculum in 2014. However, that curriculum is not binding on Academies or Free Schools. The Government assures us that this is not a problem, because all schools need to prepare for external exams, and these exams, of course, include evolution. Exams that the schools have now been openly invited to censor. There is supposedly clear guidance for state-funded schools in England. Michael Gove, Education Secretary, has declared himself  “crystal clear that teaching creationism is at odds with scientific fact”, and official guidance to Free School applicants states “We would expect to see evolution and its foundation topics fully included in any science curriculum. We do not expect creationism, intelligent design and similar ideas to be taught as valid scientific theories in any state funded school.”

The reality however is that what are clearly creationist establishments do get government funding. Creationist preschools, to which the guidance does not apply, can and do receive public money through nursery vouchers, while being run by organisations such as ACE (see below) that openly teach rigid biblical creationism along with even more rigid gender roles. BHA knows of 67 nursery schools that are run by Creationist or other organizations that openly reject the basics of biology. Some of these directly teach Adam-and-Eve history as fact that must be believed, and Government funding to these nursery schools may also be indirectly underwriting primary and secondary schools run by the same organizations.

 “We will teach creation as a scientific theory” 

In addition, a number of Academies and Free Schools have been licensed despite clear warning signals. Grindon Hall Christian School , formerly private, was licensed to receive public funding in 2012, despite a record of teaching creationism, and a website Creation Policy, hastily deleted after it received public attention, which stated “We will teach creation as a scientific theory”. Newark School of Enterprise, until recently expected to open in 2014, is a thinly disguised relabelling of Everyday Champions Church School, which was originally denied licensing because of its obvious links to a creationist church. (Last month, it was announced that the Government had withdrawn support for the school on other grounds.) Ibrahim Hewitt, of the Association of Muslim Schools, has said that his members’ schools, including six state-funded ones, taught children about Darwin, because they had to, but they also taught a different, Koranic view. The ill-fated al-Madinah School originally specified “Darwinism” as un-Koranic on its website, but under “curriculum” now says only “We are committed to providing a broad and balanced curriculum for all our pupils.  Further information will be available in due course.”

Pray for CST In the private sector, we have Christian Schools Trust (CST), with 42 schools. Some of these are applying for “Free Schools” status; so far unsuccessfully, but Tyndale Community School, which has been approved, is run by Oxfordshire Community Churches which also runs the CST Kings School in Whitney. CST schools teach Genesis as historical fact, with the Fall as the source of all evil, and discuss evolution in such a way as to make it seem incredible. According to the Ph.D. thesis of Sylvia Baker, founder and core team member of CST, 75% of students end up believing in Noah’s ark. Dr Baker, author of Bone of Contention and other creationist works,  is also directly linked to Genesis Agendum, a “creation science” website, and language in her style appears in the related WorldAroundUs “virtual museum”, which claims to show that

                               Book cover image: Bone of Contention

evolution and old Earth geology are outdated scientific paradigms in the process of crumbling (for a detailed analysis of the museum’s arguments, see here, where I describe it as a “museum of horrors”). Since 2008, CST and the Association of Muslim Schools have shared their own special inspectorate, of which Sylvia Baker is a board member. So the foxes placed in charge of the hen house have under two successive Governments been entrusted with the task of evaluating their own stewardship.

World Around Us

“…. towards a post-Darwinian view: some of the evidence”

 “…a body of recent, peer-reviewed scientific evidence is presented which suggests that all is not well with a number of aspects of evolutionary theory. Is this a paradigm crisis?
Organisms reveal levels of interdependence, and are therefore irreducibly complex.
Many of the rock formations result from catastrophic rather than gradual uniformitarian processes
The principles on which radioactive dating is based can be questioned”

In an even grosser scandal, NARIC, the National Academic Recognition Information Centre, has approved the ICCE advanced certificate, based on Accelerated Creation Education (ACE), as equivalent to A-level. ACE has claimed, and in the US still does claim, that Nessie is evidence for a persistence of dinosaurs, and teaches that evolution has been scientifically proven false, and that those who accept its “impossible claims” do so in order to reject God. This in a text that prepares students for a certificate that NARIC would have us accept as preparation for the study of biology at university. And NARIC is the body that provides information on qualifications on behalf of the UK Government.

The Hopeful Monster Theory

The ACE curriculum’s straw man version of evolution

In all these cases, the actual offence is compounded by official complacency or collusion. I can only guess at why is this allowed to happen, but among relevant factors may be official concerned with procedures rather than outcomes, scientific illiteracy among decision-makers, free market forces (the exam boards, after all, are competing for the schools’ business), misplaced respect for differences, and electoral calculation. Religious zealots form an organised political pressure group, while their reality-orientated co-religionists are far too slow to condemn them. Ironically, these co-religionists have even more to lose than the rest of us, as their institutions are subverted from inside, and their faith brought into disrepute.

In response, those of us who oppose the forces of endarkenment must become recognised as a constituency, not necessarily in any formal sense, but in the sense that politicians are aware of the depth of our concerns. Numbers are increasingly on our side, since young people are more sceptical than their elders, and Humanists, secularists, Skeptics, and even geeks are our natural allies. And so, on this issue, are liberal-minded believers from all faiths. There is need for coordinated public pressure, through teachers’ organisations, other educational bodies and learned societies, publicity and protests after specific cases revealed, and campaigns such as the BHA letter-writing campaign that is the subject of this post. So here, once more, is the BHA link: Use it.

For other posts on the issues discussed here, as they apply in England and Scotland, see Evolution censored from exam questions in publicly funded English schools, with government permission; PhD Thesis of Sylvia Baker, founder of “Christian” (i.e. Creationist) Schools Trust; Noah’s Ark Zoo Farm Responds to Criticism; ACE Infantile creationist burblings rated equivalent to UK A-level (school leaving; University entrance) exams; and Young Earth Creationist books handed out in a Scottish state school. Poster displayed at Noah’s Ark Zoo Farm, image by Pip through Wikipedia Commons. This post is based on a talk I gave to the Conway Hall Ethical Society on March 16, 2014.

Why I do NOT “believe in Darwin’s theory of evolution”

File:Origin of Species title page.jpgFact not theory; 150 years on from Darwin’s watershed publication; evidence not belief. Words matter.

A recent Harris poll asked Americans “Do you believe in Darwin’s theory of evolution?” Others more eminent have commented on the answers; I would like to comment on the question.

Darwin, of course, never used the word “evolution,” but let that pass. As for the rest, it would be difficult to cram a larger number of serious errors into so small a space. Errors of presentation, of logic, and of scientific and historical fact, all of which play into the hands of our Creationist opponents.

Start with the obvious, the word “theory.” In common language a theory always involves speculation. In academic discourse, it means a coherent set of ideas that explain the facts. Calling something a theory in this sense tells you nothing at all about how certain it is. A theory can be wrong (phlogiston theory), known to be approximate from the outset (ideal gas theory), very close to the truth but since improved on (Newton’s theory of planetary motions), or as certain as human knowledge ever can be (number theory in mathematics). Of course you can explain all this, but you should not put yourself in such a vulnerable position in the first place. It wastes time in debate, or in the classroom. It puts you on the defensive, and thus, paradoxically, confers legitimacy on the attack. It allows the focus to shift from what we know about the world to the words we use to talk about it. This takes us away from science to the domain of the philosophers, lawyers, and expositors of Scripture who are fighting on behalf of Creationism.

And so it distracts from what you should be talking about, namely the facts. Evolution, whether we mean changes in the genetic make-up of populations over time, or the common descent of living things on earth, is a fact. It is supported by, and explains, innumerable more specific facts concerning the fossil record, molecular phylogeny (the same kind of evidence that is used every day in DNA paternity tests), the frozen-in historical accidents of organs that have lost or changed their function, the distribution of species throughout space and time, and much more besides. Creationism cannot explain these facts, except by appeal to the whims of the Creator.

Next “Darwin’s.” Darwin did indeed have a theory, as independently had Wallace, which was that different species had arisen gradually by natural selection operating on variation. This he supported by meticulous observation, but the range of evidence available to him was far more limited than what we have today. He lamented the poverty of the then known fossil record, laments that Creationists echo to this day as if nothing had changed. He knew nothing about mutations or even about the existence of specific genes, and so he had no idea how new variants could arise and spread. His assumption of gradualism is in contrast to later ideas such as punctuated equilibrium, and we now know that much if not indeed most variation arises through neutral drift. Thus not only do we know far more facts about evolution than Darwin could have dreamt of, but our theories, too, incorporate numerous additional concepts.

Finally, worst of all, “believe in.” Believing always carries with it the feeling that disbelief is an option. Some members of the jury believe the witness, others don’t. Some people believe that Hillary Clinton will be the next President of the United States, but no one would say they “believe” that Barak Obama is the current incumbent, because no sane person doubts it. I don’t “believe in” atoms, or gravity, or quantum mechanics, because I regard them as established beyond dispute, although our notions about them will no doubt continue to change as we learn more. And exactly the same is true of evolution.

Does it matter? Yes, it matters enormously. Creationists often maintain that evolution and Creation are both beliefs, whose respective advocates differ, not about observable facts, but about how those facts are to be interpreted. They obsess about Darwin, referring to evolution as “Darwinism,” and to those who accept this reality as “Darwinists.” The aim here is to bypass 150 years of experimental and intellectual discoveries, to bog us down in the day disputes of the late 19th century, or even (“Darwin’s doubt,” see here and here) to enlist Darwin himself as an unwitting ally.  And they contrast evolution, as “only” a theory, with facts or even with scientific laws, in order to claim that it is far from certain and that different views deserve a hearing.

Most people have not thought long and hard about evolution. And in the US at least, much of what they have heard about it will have come from its theologically motivated opponents. These opponents, whether through “statements of faith” that make obscurantism a virtue, or through “academic freedom bills” that disguise telling lies to children as open intellectual debate, use carefully crafted words to stake spurious claims to the moral high ground.

We should not, ourselves, be using words that help them do this.

Evolution censored from exam questions in publicly funded English schools, with government permission

Jewish faith school caught censoring questions on science exam papersEngland’s largest examination board, OCR, has agreed to let publicly funded schools censor (“redact” in official sanitised language) examination questions involving evolution if they offend the religious sensibilities of the schools concerned. You will find more details here and here and here. The Sunday Times story on the subject neglects to mention the key fact of Government involvement, but quotes further disturbing comment from the exam board.

Last summer, Yesodey Hatorah Senior Girls’ High School in north London blacked out questions on evolution from science exams. OCR investigated the matter, concluded that no student had gained any unfair advantage from this procedure, and took no further action. Yesodey Hatorah follows Charedi Judaism, an extreme sect that does not allow access to television or social media, and does not encourage its daughters to take part in further education.

We now have the exam board’s explanation of their position, and the explanation is far worse than the offence. It is a pre-emptive cringe in the face of censorship. The Government colludes, confirming long-standing fears that its official commitment to teaching real science is a hollow sham.

We know all this because the National Secular Society raised the Yesodey Hatorah incident with England’s Department for Education under the Freedom of Information Act, and was told that a “proportional and reasonable response” had been agreed with the school. According to the NSS,

 The Department’s response reveals that that faith schools will still be permitted to redact questions they don’t approve of as long as this is done in collaboration with the exam board. Setting out the response to the uncovering of exam malpractice, OCR wrote to the [governmental] exam regulator Ofqual, stating:

 “In our deliberations we have reached the conclusion the most proportionate and reasonable approach would be to come to an agreement with the centres concerned which will protect the future integrity of our examinations – by stipulating how, when and where the redactions take place – but at the same time respect their need to do this in view of their religious beliefs. We believe we need to be mindful of the fact that if we do not come to an agreement with the centres we could be seen as creating a barrier to accessing the examinations for the candidates.”

 But maybe this is just a one-off? No. As the Sunday Times reports, the Chief Executive of OCR also said that such redaction had

 “significantly wider implications and could apply to other faith schools”

 So the right of these schools to censor exams is to be respected, provided exam board agrees, but the exam board, as a prelude to negotiating with the schools, has announced that it is going to respect their need to censor in view of their religious beliefs, because otherwise

 “we could be seen as creating a barrier to accessing the examinations for the candidates.”

 There ought to be “a barrier to accessing the examinations for the candidates,” and for the best of all possible reasons. One of the most important functions of the exam system is to impose generally recognised standards on the schools whose students take those exams. To allow schools to censor the exposure of their students to the central concept of the life sciences is to default on this vital function.

Indeed, Government policy relies on the examination boards carrying out this function. The Education Minister assures us that as of this September, Yesodey Hatorah, a voluntary aided school, will be required to teach evolution because it is part of the National Curriculum. However, the Free Schools being so recklessly created at the moment are not required to follow that Curriculum. The Government tells us that such a requirement is unnecessary, because the Free Schools will have to follow good educational policy, in order to prepare their pupils for exams.

Exams which, as is now clear, the schools will be allowed to censor.


The Deep Roots of Intelligent Design Creationism (Pt II of Kelvin, Rutherford, and the Age of the Earth )

Conservative politician caught lying. Learning from creationists. And the origins of plate tectonics. Last November, creationist objectors in Texas tried yet again to sabotage the state’s textbook adoption process. One of the objections concerned the age of the Earth, using the long refuted cooling argument that goes back to Kelvin in the 1860s. An online conversation about the matter directed me to the real flaw in Kelvin’s reasoning, which is different from what I had believed (see my earlier posting). Further digging led me to the oldest formulation I know of Intelligent Design (ID) creationism (of course, it was not called that, but “Unsolved Problems of Science”. Now over a century old, it already shows the key features of “modern” ID, even down to the link with conservative politics, and the despicable misuse of fraudulently edited quotations. Kelvin’s reasoning was based on a very simple physical model, heat flow from a solid sphere initially at uniform high temperature. This model, and estimates of the rate of heat flow and temperature gradient, led him to assign a maximum age of a mere hundred million years, with the most probable age around a quarter of that. And yet the argument from radiometric dating, something with which Kelvin himself was never happy, gives overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Rutherford, and everyone else for decades afterwards, thought that Kelvin’s error lay in the neglect of the heat generated within the earth by radioactive decay itself. Actually, it is a mistake to imagine that radioactive heating has all that much to do with it, and I must confess to having repeated this mistake many times in my own teaching and writing. The real error (details here and in Pt I)had been pointed out a decade before Rutherford confronted Kelvin at the Royal Institution, and three years before radioactivity had even been discovered. Kelvin’s calculation only considered heat transfer by conduction, whereas convection from depth is far more important. Convection can efficiently transport heat over long distances. It would have brought far more to the surface than Kelvin’s model allowed for, meaning that it must have taken far longer to get rid of it. John Perry, one of Kelvin’s own former students, was sure that Kelvin’s estimate of the earth’s age was far too low, suggested that Kelvin could have drastically underestimated the efficiency of heat transfer, and even suggested that the Earth’s interior could be in a partly molten state, making convection possible. In this piece, I want to talk about two things, how I learned the error of my ways, and exactly what it was that goaded Perry into an uncharacteristic public quarrel with his former mentor. I will also very briefly discuss the enormous importance of mantle convection for the present-day science of geology. First, the question of John Perry’s timing. If Kelvin had been promoting his cooling argument since 1862, why did no one query his physical assumptions until Perry did so in 1894? The answer, according to the historian Brian Shipley (now Canadian consul in Minneapolis), lies more in the domain of politics than of science.

The hall of Christ Church, Oxford, where Salisbury was awarded an honorary 4th class degree in mathematics (Public domain, through Wikipedia)

In the late 19th century, the annual meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science was an event of major importance. Presidential addresses had been given by Kelvin, by T. H. Huxley, and in 1892 by Sir Archibald Geikie, the most eminent British geologist of the time. In his address, Geikie tactfully thanked Kelvin for bringing physics to bear on the problems of geology, and for pointing out that thismeant that the earth could not be indefintley old as the geologists of half a century earlier had imagined. Nonetheless, he insisted that the Earth had to be much older than Kelvin would admit, and that therefore there must be some flaw, yet to be discovered, in Kelvin’s reasoning. In 1894, the Association met in Oxford. The Presidential Address was in part a response to Geikie. It was given by Lord Salisbury, a senior Conservative politician, who would be responsible for the Boer War among other things, and was the last Prime Minister to run his administrations from the House of Lords. Salisbury was extremely pessimistic by temperament, believing that “Whatever happens will be for the worse, and therefore it is in our interest that as little should happen as possible.” It is not surprising, then, that he was unsympathetic to the idea of evolution. Some of Salisbury’s remarks make one nostalgic for an earlier age, before the mid–20th century phenomenon of “scientific creationism”. “Few men”, he says, “are now influenced by the strange idea that questions of religious belief depend on the issues of physical research. Few men, whatever their creed, would now seek their geology in the books of their religion…”. Alas, this is exactly the way proponents of “creation science” would have us proceed, rejecting all evidence that cannot be fitted into a biblical framework. Salisbury also praises Darwin, and refers to the “lasting and unquestioned effect” of his work in disposing of the doctrine of the immutability of species, so that “Few are now found to doubt that animals separated by differences far exceeding those that distinguished what we know as species have yet descended from common ancestors.” But it is all downhill from there. File:Robert Arthur Talbot Gascoyne-Cecil, Vanity Fair, 1900-12-20.jpg

Salisbury, caricatured by Spy for Vanity Fair, 1900

 Salisbury accepts Kelvin’s estimates for the rate at which the Earth is cooling, asserts that according to these estimates organic life could not have existed on the Earth as it was 100 million years ago, and contrasts this with the requirements of the geologists and biologists, and “the prodigality of ciphers [zeroes] which they put at the end of the earth’s hypothetical life.” Natural selection demands well over a hundred million years; but according to the physicists, if the Earth even existed that far back in time it would have been so hot that all living things would have been vaporized. Faced with this disagreement, Salisbury proclaims himself neutral, but there is no doubt who he is neutral for. He puts forward various arguments from ignorance, which had more weight then than when creationists repeat them now. He also puts forward plausible arguments based on the improbability of matings between animals carrying favoured new variations. Those arguments were wrong, but this was not shown convincingly until the 1920s, with the development of statistical genetics, so we can forgive him. He also links the popularity of evolutionary thinking to Darwin’s own personality, and to disputes outside the domain of science itself, and predicts its decline. These themes, also, continue to resonate in the ID and other creationist literature. But, to be fair, they may have had more force at the time than they do now, more than a century later. What cannot be forgiven, however, is Salisbury’s editing, truncating, and reassembling quotations in such a way as to completely distort the meaning. This is a serious charge, and therefore requires detailed evidence. I can only apologise for the amount of space necessary for this. Distortion provides the basis for Salisbury’s most seemingly conclusive argument, which is philosophical, and hinges on an alleged quotation from a paper by the evolutionary scientist Weismann. The same Weismann to whom we owe our clear distinction between inheritance and development, genotype and phenotype. The relevant article, Contemporary Review, 1893, 64, 309-338, is titled “The All-Sufficiency of Natural Selection”, and Salisbury quotes from it as follows:

We accept natural selection, not because we are able to demonstrate the process in detail, not even because we can read more or less easily imagine it, but simply because we must – because it is the only possible explanation that we can conceive. We must assume natural selection to be the principle of the explanation of the metamorphoses, because all other apparent principles of explanation fail us, and it is inconceivable that there could yet be another capable of explaining the adaptation of organisms without assuming the help of a principle of design.

This, Salisbury would have us believe, demonstrates the ultimate bankruptcy of evolutionary theory. Invoking a principle of design is simply declared illegitimate, by arbitrary decree, so that natural selection can be accepted on faith. Wrenched from their context, Weismann’s words are paraded as evidence that evolution rests on assumptions as arbitrary as those of any religion. We are in the quote mine, territory all too familiar to students of creationism. Weismann is rebuked for dismissing “the help of a principle of design,” and thereby excluding the mood of explanation that now goes by the name of “Intelligent Design theory.” But that has absolutely nothing to do with what Weismann is actually talking about. Salisbury is neglecting context. Weismann is arguing, very specifically, with Herbert Spencer. What is at stake is not whether evolution occurs buthow it occurs, whether adaptations emerge within individuals through usage as organisms develop and live out their lives, or whether it occurs, as Weismann is correctly arguing, through selection between individuals. Actually, it’s worse. The two sentences that Salisbury runs together do not even belong together. Both sentences in the purported quotation come from Weismann’s article. The text of the second sentence, slightly longer than Salisbury’s version, is on p. 328. The first comes from considerably later on in the article, p.336, and the passage reads in full:

We accept it [natural selection], not because we are able to demonstrate the process in detail, not even because we can read more or less easily imagine it, but simply because we must – because it is the only possible explanation that we can conceive. For there are only two possible a priori explanations of adaptations for the naturalist – namely, the transmission of functional adaptations [as Weismann termed acquired characters] and natural selection; but as the first of these can be excluded, only the second remains.

In other words, Weismann and Spencer are already agreed on seeking naturalistic explanations, so that the question of a “principle of design” is not even under active consideration. Weismann, in the course of some 30 densely argued pages, is considering the competing explanations of evolved adaptedness, and makes his point by discussing how sterile worker insects come to be adapted to their way of life. He argues that only two such explanations are possible, namely the inheritance of acquired characters, and natural selection. But sterile workers cannot transmit acquired characters to their offspring, because they have none. Therefore the correct explanation must be natural selection; in this case selection for the ability to give rise to effective worker offspring. Weismann is not invoking extra-scientific arguments to exclude design; he is talking about something different altogether. Salisbury’s reading of Weismann is a contrived and unnatural distortion, made possible only by juxtaposing sentences that do not even belong on the same page, and in the wrong order to boot. Having misrepresented Weismann as an unwitting ally, Salisbury concludes his attack on evolution by natural selection with a quotation from Kelvin’s presidential address of 1871:

I have always felt that the hypothesis of natural selection does not contain the true theory of evolution, if evolution has been in biology…. I feel profoundly convinced that the argument of design has been greatly too much lost sight of in recent zoological speculations. Overpoweringly strong proofs of intelligent and benevolent design lie around us, and if ever perplexities, whether metaphysical or scientific, turn us away from them for a time, they come back upon us with irresistible force, showing us through Nature the influence of a free will, and teaching us that all living things depend on one everlasting [ever-acting?] Creator and Ruler.

I very much doubt if Perry had been following the lengthy and complex debate between Spencer and Weismann on the mechanism of evolution, but he would certainly have known of the various methods, such as the thickness of sediments, that geologists at that time were using to estimate the age of the Earth. To him, Kelvin’s much less generous estimate was the anomaly, and, when this estimate was invoked by someone of Salisbury’s eminence for semi-religious or even political purposes, that was enough to goad him into action. I found out about this all rather indirectly. As I admitted in my last post, one of my many vices is commenting in online forums. So when Jerry Coyne’s website, Why Evolution Is True, asked what cooling had to do with last November’s Texas textbook adoption drama, I wrote a comment that mentioned Kelvin and Rutherford. I also gave there, as an example of creationist absurdity, an alleged repudiation of Rutherford in a 1978 Institute for Creation Research pamphlet by Harold Slusher and T. P. Gamwell, cited by Bob Jones University. Just to be safe, I did a Google search on Slusher and Gamwell, and the only appraisal I could find dismissed their work, on the grounds that it had considered diffusion of heat across a plane surface, rather than the surface of a sphere. Reality, as always, is more interesting. My comment got a rejoinder from one Robert Seidel, who pointed out to me the paper by Englander and colleagues that I discussed on my last post. This, based on current estimates of radioactive heating, actually confirms Slusher and Gamwell’s conclusion, and in correspondence Englander told me that the difference between a plane and a sphere is quite unimportant in this context, since conductive cooling would only have penetrated in 5 billion years to one tenth of the Earth’s radius. But none of this really matters in the great scheme of things, because Kelvin’s argument, as we saw before, is swept aside by mantle convection. Conclusions: never take a quotation from a real scientist in a creationist text at face value. Strange things happen in the quote mine, as we have seen. But on the other hand, just because an argument refutes creationism, that doesn’t always mean it’s right. Just because an argument is used to support creationism, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s wrong; quite probably, as in the Slusher and Gamwell case, it’s simply irrelevant. And just because something is said by creationists, that doesn’t mean there’s nothing to be learned from it. “Learn even from your enemies”, said Ovid, and he was right.

HolmesCropped2r A quick afterword (a complete afterword would invoke a large part of all geological studies for the past 40 years): by around 1930 it had become clear, from how the shockwaves caused by earthquakes travel, that the solid crust of the Earth floats on a viscous fluid, the mantle. Arthur Holmes, the most farsighted physical geologist of his generation, realised that this would imply mantle convection. He spelt out some of the implications of this in a remarkable paper in Transactions of the Geological Society of Glasgow. Heat would build up (see thumbnail) beneath over-large continents, attracting upward convective flow which would eventually tear them apart. New basaltic crust would appear at such separation zones, while old crust would disappear in regions of downward flow. Thus for the continents to move it it would not be necessary for them to force their way through basement rock, an obvious physical impossibility, but merely to ride on that moving basement like luggage on a conveyor belt. To use the language adopted a full generation later, when these ideas at last gained general acceptance, Holmes was describing rifting, subduction, and plate tectonics.  An earlier version of this post appeared in 3 Quarks Daily. I thank Philip England, Philip Kitcher, Peter Molnar, Brian Shipley, and one Robert Seidel (if you see this, Robert, please identify yourself so I’ll know just who to thank) for helpful discussions. I wrote to Prof Dan Olinger of Bob Jones University regarding his University’s portrayal of the Earth’s age in December 2013. He assured me that his colleagues would reply to my questions, but they have not yet done so.

Creationism and Evolution; An Open Letter to a Misleadingly Quote-mining Minister

[E-mailed and snail-mailed to Tron Church; no reply received as of 4 weeks later. If I ever get one, I’ll give it its own post and publicise] Dear Dr Philip; You are misleading your congregation on a matter of fact. I address you both publicly and privately, and promise to publicise your reply.

In a recent web post, entitled “The Inhumanity of Humanism,” you say [a reader points out that these words and the others I cite below are not the Rev’s own, but his father’s, embedded and quoted at length with approval] I am not human because I have not been saved by Jesus[1]. You are entitled to that opinion. But you are not entitled to the manipulative misrepresentation of a distinguished evolutionary scientist, on which you base your completely unwarranted claim that the science of evolution is based on a decision to exclude God. You seem unaware of the long array of distinguished evolutionary scientists who have believed in God, including Charles Darwin at the time when he wrote On The Origin Of Species, but let that pass.

You write:


It [humanism] does not start with scientific evidence; it starts with an objection to God, and by a process of rationalisation transfers the antipathy towards God to so-called scientific arguments against his existence. This is what I meant earlier by saying that as an argument this is not very scientific, any more than another noted scientist, Professor D.M.S. Watson, is, when he says: “Evolution itself is accepted by zoologists not because it has been observed to occur, or….can be proved by logically coherent evidence to be true, but because the only alternative, special creation, is clearly incredible”. Well, well! So this is science. This is keeping God out with a vengeance! It scarcely commends “the scientific attitude” however, to thinking people, and it gives us leave to question whether the “assured results” of modern science are always as assured as they might be.

Here you have moved from an attack on Humanism to one on the science of evolution. In order to do so, you are putting into Watson’s mouth the claim that evolution is accepted without evidence merely because special creation is ruled out in advance as incredible. You then use his alleged position to launch a broad attack on those who claim to be embracing “the scientific attitude,” whatever you imagine that to be (in my experience, there are as many attitudes as there are scientists), and specifically to call into question the assured results of evolutionary science. I do not know why you do this, since I see nothing in evolutionary science that conflicts with your own Church’s statement of faith.

I will be charitable, and assume that you are unaware of the fact that you are echoing a well-known misrepresentation of Watson’s position. Indeed it is so well known that it has its own Wikipedia link. I have checked, as you evidently have not, the actual quotation, publicly accessible here (p. 95, halfway down), and find that it does indeed speak of “the Theory of Evolution itself, a theory universally accepted, not because it can be proved by logically coherent evidence to be true, but because the only alternative, special creation, is clearly incredible.” However, this is a partial recapitulation of the fuller statement on p. 88, which reads:

Evolution itself is accepted by zoologists not because it has been observed to occur or is supported by logically coherent arguments, but because it does fit all the facts of Taxonomy, of Palaeontology, and of Geographical Distribution, and because no alternative explanation is credible.

But whilst the fact of evolution is accepted by every biologist the mode in which it has occurred and the mechanism by which it has been brought about are still disputable.

Watson, remember, was writing in 1929, when the evidence available was far scantier, the interrelationship between genetics and evolution still being worked out, the nature of the genetic material unknown, and the very existence of the gene as a material entity the subject of controversy. What he is doing is stating the inadequacy, in 1929, of biologists’ understanding of the mode and mechanism of evolution. He refers correctly to evolution as a fact even then established by the evidence, and rejects alternatives because they give no credible explanation of the data. In the rest of his article, he goes on to ask good questions about the process by which evolution occurs, questions that have received good answers aplenty in the intervening 85 years (some of them ably expounded by Dennis Venema, himself an evangelical Christian, here). D. M. S. Watson most emphatically does not do what you accuse him of doing, namely ruling out creationism because he wishes to exclude God. I have no idea what his views were on the existence of God, nor do I see how they are relevant once his words are honestly examined in their actual context.

I hope you will disabuse your congregation of the error that you have, no doubt I unknowingly, helped propagate, and I undertake to publicise any reply you make as extensively as I am publicising this letter.


Prof Paul S. Braterman, MA, DPhil., DSc.

[1] The actual words are: “It is not possible to be human (or humanist, rightly understood) without being saved into humanity by the God Who gave Himself for us in Jesus Christ.”  It has occurred to me, since sending this piece to the Reverend, that he may be a Universalist who believes I have been saved despite my lack of belief, but I do not think this likely.

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