Monthly Archives: December 2014
International attention for Scotland’s refusal to ban teaching of creationism
Our petition continues to gather international attention., appearing here on Why Evolution is True, a mass audience blog run by Jerry Coyne, author of the book of that name, one of my favourites on the topic. This in the wake of attention from the Sensuous Curmudgeon, whose skewering of creationism has earned him over 3 million hits.
The Scottish Government statement is not the end of the matter. The Committee will be discussing it again in January, and the fact that a civil servant, not a Minister, signed the statement may make it easier for the Government to think again.
So, especially if you are a parent, educator, or pupil/recent pupil in Scotland, and above all if you have witnessed the damaging effects of creationist teaching in any context, please send a short (one or two paragraph) submission the Petitions Committee at email@example.com citing Petition PE01530
Schools in England and Wales aren’t permitted to teach creationism, but for reasons that I can’t fathom, the Scots refuse to join them. This came to light when, as reported by Scotland’s Sunday Herald, the Scottish Secular Society (SSS) discovered that a group of American creationists “had been working as classroom assistants at a primary school in East Kilbride, South Lanarkshire.” (Note: it’s not clear whether this group actually taught creationism as science.)
The SSS petitioned the Scottish Parliament requesting explicit guidance on this issue (i.e., banning creationism the same way it’s done in the rest of the UK), but were turned back with this disappointing statement by a government official:
Tim Simons, Head of Curriculum Unit at the Scottish Government’s Learning Directorate, has written to the parliament’s petitions committee that there are no plans to introduce ban guidance called for by the SSS.
Mr Simmons [sic] said: “I can…
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The Bible and Slavery (and Creationism): It’s Not That Complicated
As with slavery (and genocide, and the death penalty for Sabbath breaking and blasphemy and really, really stroppy teenagers), so with a young Earth, the order of events in Genesis, the notion of a single ancestral pair for humanity and the separate creation of kinds. The only honest thing to say is that the Bible is wrong about these. And there may be ways to continue to hold it in reverence, but literalist inerrancy is not one of them.
Why I won’t debate with a creationist. And what to do instead.
Recently, here, I publicly refused an invitation from a creationist to debate our respective standpoints. I gave the usual reasons; it would look better on his vita than on mine, and I saw no advantage in publicising his absurdities. This even though he most graciously offered to allow me to nominate someone else from the British Centre for Science Education, if I did not myself feel up to the intellectual challenge involved.
On reflection, I feel that I was less than open, and that the dilemma posed may have some more general relevance to education about evolution, which is why I am discussing it here. In brief, the kind of debate suggested is not symmetrical. There are more ways of being wrong than being right, and the scientist is constrained by reality, while the creationist is constrained only by plausibility. Creationist arguments revolve round memes that have undergone prolonged Darwinian evolution, and such memes when successful do not disappear merely because they have been logically refuted. We tend to believe what we are told, especially if we are hearing it from a speaker dignified by a public platform. Critical evaluation of complex arguments is always difficult, and in areas that we have not studied can approach the impossible. The spoken word, above all, is fleeting; we have time to form an impression, but not enough for critical analysis, making it the perfect medium for the seemingly learned non sequitur. Speech is also the natural medium for the rhetorical trick of equivocation, an apparently convincing chain of reasoning that depends on sliding from one meaning of a word to another. We cannot rebut creationist claims without publicising them, and rebuttals sound too much like excuses. In any case, rebuttals cannot possibly be more memorable than the claims rebutted, and the very act of debate suggests an intellectual balance that does not in fact exist.
Some of these problems still persist in writing, but less so, and I was tempted to present here a brief rebuttal of the few specimens of creationist nonsense that I have come across recently. Claiming that Intelligent Design isn’t creationism, pretending that macroevolution is still speculative, anomalous dating of coal deposits, irreducible complexity, information requiring an intelligence, the Missing Link (actually found in 1924), polystrate fossils, that kind of thing. And then I realised that this would be a singularly futile exercise. Most of my readers can do this just as well for themselves, while the dissenting minority will merely echo more long-refuted creationist myths, or, in the case of one reader, generate new myths of his own, and engage in tedious verbal trench warfare to support their positions. No opinions dented, and nothing learnt.
How then to proceed? I would suggest starting from the fact that people tend to believe what they want to believe, and want to feel comfortable with their beliefs. So a two-pronged approach. Make creationism less comfortable for the creationists, and make scientific reality more comfortable for all of us.
My contribution towards the first of these goals is to point out, as I have here already, that creationism is blasphemous because it requires a God who lied in the Great Book of Nature. As an atheist, I have perhaps poor credentials to argue this point, although I would say in my own defence that it was my own position when, many years ago, I was myself a believer, that I seem to have struck a chord among some of my believing friends, and that similar sentiments have just now been independently and eloquently expressed, albeit more graciously, from within the community of believers.
As for the second of these goals, one promising technique is to render evolution personal, by connecting it to our individual development in the womb, or our individual ancestry, or to the parallels between biological evolution and aspects of cultural and historical development, not all of them benign. Recently, some outstanding books have appeared using these approaches, and I will be reviewing them here early in the New Year.
All of this has serious implications for me as I contemplate my next major writing project.
OK to teach creationism “in context”, says Scottish Government
Some of us had been wondering whether the replacement of Mike Russell by Angela Constance as Scottish Education Secretary would see any improvement in the Government’s “See no evil” approach to the problem of creationism in schools. We have not had long to wait. The answer is no. On the contrary, things suddenly seem to have got a whole lot worse.
Regular readers will know of the Scottish Secular Society’s Petition to the Scottish Parliament, in which we seek
official guidance to bar the presentation in Scottish publicly funded schools of separate creation and of Young Earth doctrines as viable alternatives to the established science of evolution, common descent, and deep time.
The Government’s response to the Committee, issued December 15, over the signature of Tim Simons, Head of Curriculum Unit, Learning Directorate, states that, on the contrary,
There is no intention, either stated or implied, for schools to limit classroom discussion and debate about complex, challenging or controversial topics such as those posed by Creationism. For example, within the context of the delivery of the “Experiences and Outcomes” in Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) Religious and Moral Education it is likely that concepts of creationism and evolution, will be discussed in a variety of contexts. Moreover, Creationism is not identified as a scientific theory or a topic within Curriculum for Excellence. Evolution however is specifically covered in the “Experiences and Outcomes” for the sciences.
Education Scotland’s guidance in the form of the “Principles and Practice” paper for science includes – among the purposes of studying science – that children and young people should “demonstrate a secure knowledge and understanding of the big ideas and concepts of the sciences.”
So now we know. Creationism is not, as we weird sciency types had imagined, a purblind reality-denying misinterpretation of an Iron Age account of a Bronze Age myth. No. It is “complex, challenging, or controversial”. But don’t worry. It will be discussed in a variety of contexts, but so will evolution, and while evolution will always be there in the science class, creationism will only be there if the teacher feels like it. (For the Scottish Secular Society’s immediate reaction, see here)
But what about those of us who are worried about what happened at Kirktonholme, where children in primary school paid for by our taxes were told that evolution is a lie, the Earth is 6000 years old, radiometric dating is a trick concocted to deny Biblical truth, and that dinosaur graveyards are evidence of Noah’s Flood?
No need to worry. To quote again from the document,
No concerns have been expressed to Education Scotland staff, either from the RME or Science teams, on any of these occasions [consultative meetings] about the teaching of Creationism in Scottish schools. Also, no school or teacher has sought guidance on this matter from Education Scotland.
That settles it. Education Scotland never learnt that anything had gone wrong. Therefore nothing could possibly have gone wrong. Therefore Education Scotland does not need to examine its information-gathering procedures. The parents’ meeting at Kirktonholme, involving as it did the majority of school parents, and making headlines from the Daily Record to the Herald, was totally unnecessary, because nothing wrong had ever happened, because if it had, Education Scotland would have known about it. Silly us for ever thinking otherwise. For which reason Tim Simons is able to assure us that
I can therefore confirm that there are no plans to issue guidance to schools or education authorities to prevent the presentation of Creationism, Intelligent Design or similar doctrines by teachers or school visitors. The evidence available suggests that guidance on these matters is unnecessary.
[Emphasis added] So now we know.
Time turned to stone, Part 2: The Giants’ Causeway; time as process
An earlier post here described Siccar Point, where an 80,000,000 year time gap is present between near-vertical tilted strata, and their roughly horizontal overlay. This gap corresponds to the formation and subsequent erosion of fold mountains thrown up when Iapetus, precursor to the modern North Atlantic, closed. Today’s post is (mainly) about the Giants’ Causeway, part of the enormous lava field first produced when the modern North Atlantic began to open, and still growing at the Mid-Atlantic Ridge and, most spectacularly, in Iceland. Fragments of the initial outpouring were separated as the Eurasian and North American plates moved away from each other, and now can be found as far apart as Greenland and Denmark.
The Antrim Lava Field, of which the Causeway is part, was formed in three separate phases each consisting of many individual episodes. The most spectacular feature of the Causeway is provided by the second of these. Here, the lava cooled slowly, to generate a solid layer which stressed as it cooled, finally fracturing to give a complex array of columns, up to 10 metres high, and showing in places an almost regular hexagonal pattern. The lava of this second phase shows subtle chemical differences from the first, evidence of changes in the hot lava plume feeding the outflow. But what most excited me at the site was the existence of a band around 5 metres thick, between these columns and the lava beneath them. This layer is not a sediment, but a palaeosol, an ancient soil formed by in situ weathering of the top of the lavas deposited in the first phase. Its nature is confirmed by the presence of occasional unweathered lumps, and there are occasional round scars (“Giants’ eyes”) in the exposed surface where these lumps have come away. Humid conditions are confirmed by the presence of valleys carved by streams, and filled in by the later lava flows. The chemical composition is like that of tropical soils, which have undergone extensive prolonged leeching under warm and wet conditions, with the most insoluble materials, iron and aluminium oxides, predominating towards the top, and there are traces of charred plant roots in the topmost layer. So here we have direct evidence of an extended interval, variously estimated at between 100,000 years and 3 million years, between the first and second phase of eruptions. After my visit, I discovered that this interbasaltic layer is found across the whole area of the Antrim Lava Field, and that there is another such layer between the middle and upper lavas. There are also extensive dikes, penetrating all the lower levels, caused by the eruption of the lava layers above. The entire coastline has been extensively reshaped and eroded over the intervening millions of years, and most dramatically during the Ice Ages, and subsequent exposure to the storms of the Atlantic. For more extensive descriptions, see here, p. 30, or here, and references therein.
Right: “The Chimneys,” columnar structures on skyline. Note additional columnar sructures to right and beneath.
Below: Interbasaltic layer beneath The Chimneys. Click and click again to magnify: note uneven upper contact surface between weathered layer and basalt, due to erosion of palaeosol, and holes (“giants’ eyes”) in the layer where incompletely weathered basalt chunks have been dislodged.
To summarise the sequence of events, we have
- The formation of the lower basalts in 11 separate episodes
- A pause of at least 100,000 years, during which the first interbasaltic layer formed by weathering, this weathering was accompanied by the erosion of stream valleys, and there were changes in chemical composition beneath the crust in the lavas feeding the eruptions
- The formation of the middle basalts
- Their slow cooling to give regular columns
- More weathering, to give the second interbasaltic layer
- Formation of the upper basalts, and finally
- Further gradual processes of weathering, erosion, and exposure.
One would expect any politician to be proud to have within his constituency so dramatic a statement of the Earth’s history. Not so. Northern Ireland Assembly member Mervyn Storey, who is currently Chair of the Northern Ireland Assembly Education Committee, is vice-chairman of the Caleb Foundation. This body rejects the whole of modern geology as well as evolutionary biology, and claimed credit (if that is the correct word) for temporarily persuading the National Trust exhibit on the formation of the Causeway to give Young Earth creationism parity of treatment with scientific geology. The resulting outrage led to a letter writing campaign with its own Facebook page (which survives as a discussion forum), and eventual removal of the offending language.
I was amazed when I learnt what Storey considered to be the real cause of the Causeway; Noah’s Flood. Surely, I thought, even he would be aware that basalts had an igneous rather than an aqueous origin. It was only later that I learnt of the Flood Geology version of creationism. According to this, the year of Noah’s Flood was accompanied by a catastrophic remoulding of the entire planet, including dizzying motions of the continents, and massive outpourings of lava. (No matter that there is absolutely nothing in the Bible to suggest anything of the kind.) This is why the creationist literature is full of attempts to revive the long-dead conflict between catastrophism and uniformitarianism. As I mentioned in my last post, T. H. Huxley had pronounced the obituary on this conflict in 1869, but I do not think that people like Melvyn Storey pay much attention to Huxley.
Storey also managed to grab a few headlines in 2009, the year of the bicentenary of Darwin’s birth and of the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species. The Ulster Museum mounted a special exhibition celebrating this, and Storey publicly threatened the Museum with litigation, for violating equality laws. As he put it in an interview with the Guardian,
In the past, when I have written to the museum about necessity to show the public an alternative to Darwin’s theory (and let’s stress it is still only a theory), they have been quite dismissive.
They could be subject to a legal challenge under equality legislation within Northern Ireland if they chose to ignore alternative views that many people here in the Province believe in.
This takes us to the heart of the matter. Equality legislation is about how people are treated as a result of group membership, rather than as individuals. Denial such as Storey’s is based not on reason or religion, but on his own group loyalty. Northern Ireland, notoriously, is inhabited by two rival tribes. One tribe is overwhelmingly Catholic, accepts the facts of evolution and an ancient Earth, and has traditionally sought to be ruled from Dublin. The other, to which Storey belongs, is biblical infallibilist Presbyterian, believes that the world must have been made in six days some 6000 years ago because God said so, and is fiercely insistent on being ruled from Westminster. If Storey were to accept the scientific evidence, that would mean letting the requirements of truth override the requirements of tribe, which is unacceptable.
And finally, time as sequence of events. I show here a photograph of a pebble, collected on the beach at Benalmadena, in southern Spain. This is a geologically interesting area because that is where the African plate moving northwards presses against the Eurasian plate. Around the rim of the pebble, especially at 2 o’clock and 6 o’clock, you can see a hint of separate layers. These are not strata, but caused by the lining up of tiny crystals in the rock under pressure. The pebble is crisscrossed with white lines (quartz, carried there in superheated water) and pinkish lines (the same, but contaminated with iron) in various directions. The thickest of these pinkish lines runs more or less from top to bottom of the image, and it is easy to see that this line defines a fault, with the rock material having yielded and been pushed upwards on the left-hand side. Thinking about how the lines cross each other, it is clear that the pebble has undergone at least two separate episodes of intrusion by white quartz, and two by pink quartz, the more recent of these corresponding to the fault formation. That’s four separate events, involving at least two separate sources of quartz-bearing fluid, after the rock had already formed and then been subjected to enormous tectonic pressure, but before this particular piece was detached, to be worn down in the water and eventually deposited on the beach.
As Yogi Berra said, you can see a lot just by looking. And one thing you can see, if you are prepared to look, is that it takes millions of years to make a pebble.
I thank the Giants Causeway Visitors Centre. Photographs by the author. An earlier version of this post appeared on 3 Quarks Daily
Introduction to Intelligent Design, Alastair Noble (review)
Summary: a doctrine that doesn’t deliver, the usual rhetorical tricks, begging the question, ignoring the evidence, distorting the science, and leaving all the work still to do.
I promised friends I would review this, so here it is. Fortunately, a paragraph by paragraph review has already been carried out by my BCSE colleague, Dr Robert Saunders, Reader in Molecular Genetics at the Open University, so I can be brief.
A doctrine that doesn’t deliver
This pamphlet is indeed a worthy introduction to what now goes by the name of Intelligent Design. Quote mining, baseless claims, ignoring of established facts, repetition of long exploded arguments, and, at the heart of it all, a purported explanation of phenomena that proves on examination to explain nothing. All as a thinly disguised excuse to discard what we actually know about deep evolution and, in the ID movement on this side of the Atlantic at least, about deep time.
Now to detail. First, the virtues of this pamphlet. It is short; the text runs to less than 16 pages. It clearly and undeniably exemplifies the logic, and rhetorical devices, of the contemporary Intelligent Design movement. despite a £2 pricetag, it cost me nothing, having been given away at Dr Noble’s recent talk at Al’ Furqan Masjid Community Hall in Glasgow, organised through Scotland’s Interfaith Council (a charity that receives public funds). And it contains three arguments with which, as Dr Noble might be surprised to learn, I agree. I agree with his claim that we do not know the origin of life. I also agree that that science should not restrict itself a priori to natural causes. In my only professional level publication on the philosophy of science, I argue that, on the contrary, our preference for natural causes is based on experience. And I also agree with Dr Noble that the multiverse hypothesis is highly speculative, that we lack the means to test it, and that fine tuning continues to present an interesting challenge.
Next, everything else. Note that what follows applies to the 2013 print edition. Online and earlier versions may differ; I have not checked.
The usual rhetorical tricks
Problems start in the first paragraph. About the Author describes Dr Noble as “a professional adviser to secondary school teachers.” This is disingenuous. He is the Director of the Centre for Intelligent Design, not a disinterested author. But that’s a small matter.
We rapidly move on to the now traditional list of Great Scientists who believed in an Almighty Creator. And so they did. So, as I have explained here and here respectively, did James Hutton, originator of our modern concept of deep time, and, at the time when he wrote On the Origin of Species, Charles Darwin (Autobiography p. 93). So do many distinguished contemporary evolutionary biologists, ranging from the Evangelical Francis Collins to the Catholic Ken Miller, whom I will be mentioning again in this review. I wonder why the ID crowd never talk about any of these.
Then the next traditional feature, the Mined Quote. So we have Einstein, although Noble is surely aware that Einstein regarded belief in Noble’s kind of God as infantile. We even have what Michael Denton wrote in 1985, ignoring the fact that his views had changed dramatically by 1998. And of course the claim, which has been around since the 1920s, that more and more scientists are abandoning naturalistic evolution in favour of supernatural processes.
Next, the key assertions, on which the entire theory (if that is not too kind a term) depends. The first assertion is that complexity is evidence of design; the second and third, discussed below, are that information can only arise through the operation of an intelligence, and that some biological functions are “irreducibly complex” and thus could not have arisen through evolution. The first assertion runs something like this: we accept that complex artefacts are designed, and hence can infer that biological complexity likewise involves design. Expressed as a syllogism
Safety razors (Noble’s example) are complex, well adapted to function, and designed.
Living things are complex and well adapted to function.
Therefore living things are designed.
This is essentially Paley’s argument, which Darwin himself found impressive as an undergraduate (Autobiography, pp. 59, 87). However, the entire point of natural selection is that it explains how living things can become well adapted to function, without the intervention of a designer, and the entire history of life is a story of how this has happened. ID’s immediate appeal to a principle of design rules out at a stroke everything that has been gained by two centuries of investigation.
Begging the question
To bolster his claim, Noble repeatedly asserts that random change cannot generate what William Dembski has called “complex specified information”, and even goes so far as to say (p. 9) that “We know that information can only arise from prior intelligence”. He admits that evolution can function up to a point, which he calls “microevolution”, but (p. 28) makes a bizarre assertion that “Microevolution necessarily involves an overall reduction in the amount of genetic information.” This is false. Some information may be lost when less fit variants within a population tend to die out, but we know that information content is being continuously replenished by mutation, at the same time that it is being winnowed by selection. All this was worked out almost a century ago, with the development of population genetics, while Dembski’s specific probability arguments crumble in the face of a recent theoretical analysis of the time required for complex information to evolve under natural selection.
Ignoring the evidence
Next, the appeal to specified, or even irreducible, complexity, and Noble asks us to consider the eye, the ear, and that old standby the bacterial flagellum. Here, Noble actually states that ID would fail if “there is a clear step-by-step evolutionary pathway with all the intermediary stages to a bacterial flagellum or similar irreducibly complex structure which can be generated by mutations alone.” If by “mutations alone” he means mutations without selection, he is asking for something that reality does not offer. If he means an account of how the bacterial flagellum could have emerged from earlier structures, this was famously presented at the Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School Board trial, where Ken Miller testified on this very point (here, pp. 12 on; for more on Miller on the flagellum see here). If Noble then complains that that account does not include a historically reliable account of all the intermediate stages, he has missed the entire point of his own argument. Irreducible complexity, if it means anything, means that the structure could not possibly have emerged through naturalistic evolution, and Miller’s testimony readily explains how it could.
Distorting the science
There are other minor absurdities. Noble suggests that the fact that water is a liquid depends on tiny variations over and above the general rules of chemical bonding. As a chemist, he should know better, since the “hydrogen bonding” that holds H2O in the liquid state is a consequence of the same set of rules that makes the closely related substance H2S a gas. He also claims that complex life requires the moon to be exactly the right size and right distance, otherwise Earth’s axis would become unstable. I am mystified, unless he is running together two separate claims, one (plausible) regarding the stabilising effect of a satellite, and the other (ridiculous, but taken seriously within the ID community) that regards us as privileged because we are on a planet where we can observe both total and annular eclipses. And like the rest of the ID community, he misinterprets the ENCODE project, which showed that 80% of the human genome is biochemically active. We are invited to infer that DNA is perfectly designed and free of junk. But consider the “onion test“; in brief, an onion contains five times as much DNA in each cell as a human; does anyone imagine that it contains five times as much complexity?
And leaving all the work still to do
Finally, my most severe criticism of ID, which I have already stated here very briefly. It doesn’t answer the question. For a safety razor to come into existence, we need, not only design, but fabrication. And when we come across any natural feature that requires explanation, invoking ID merely leaves us two (or, if the use of ID involves rejecting naturalistic evolution, three) problems for the price of one. We have the problem of accounting for all the evidence for evolution by trial and error tinkering, combined with natural selection and genetic drift, ranging from biogeography to developmental embryology to anatomical (and now molecular) phylogeny, and much much more. We have the problem (although I suspect that for Dr Noble this is not a problem at all) of specifying the nature, provenance, and motivation of the designer (or Designer). And finally, worst of all, we still don’t know how it happened. Paley’s watch implied, not just a watch designer, but a watch assembler, a parts manufacturer, a toolmaker, a metallurgist… Unless the Designer just wills complete structures into being, in which case there’s no point even trying to do the science.
In short, this pamphlet delivers what it promises to, but the doctrine that it is promoting does not. Dr Noble repeatedly and sincerely asks us to open our minds; he is unaware that ID is an invitation to close them.
Charles Darwin through Christian spectacles
The spectacles are not mine, but those of my good friend Michael Roberts. For what it’s worth I think he underestimates Darwin’s attachment to religion. In his Autobiography (not intended for publication) Darwin says that when he was writing On the Origin of Species, he considered it impossible to conceive of this woderful Universe as the product of mere chance, writing “I feel compelled to look to a First Cause having an intelligent mind to some degree analogous to that of man, and I deserve to be called a Theist.” And he attributed his later agnosticism to doubt as to whether a mind evolved through natural selection was capable of grasping such lofty matters. (A doubt shamefully misrepresented by Plantinga, as I have shown elsewhere, for his own self-serving reasons)
Peddling and Scaling God and Darwin
CHARLES DARWIN (1809-1882)
February 12th 2009 saw the bicentenary of Darwin’s birth. Along with Isaac Newton he was one of the greatest British scientists, though his science is still controversial. To some he was a great scientist and to others the devil incarnate!
He was a quiet family man, whose life was marred by illness. He was born into an affluent home in Shrewsbury and went to Cambridge to study for the Anglican ministry. In 1831 he was invited to join the Beagle to sail round the world. That changed his life and the course of science. On that voyage he was more interested in geology and only later “moved” over to biology.
Darwin learned his science at both Edinburgh and Cambridge and some of his student notes survive. His family was scientific and as a teenager he had a well-equipped chemistry lab in an outhouse at the Mount
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