Author Archives: Paul Braterman

My “Islamic Foreshadowing of Evolution” has appeared in Muslim Heritage.

I am published in Muslim Heritage.

Islamic Foreshadowing of Evolution (full article here).

Gloriously illustrated by the Muslim Heritage editorial team; so much for the common impression that Islam forbids representational art.

Images assembled by Muslim Heritage editorial team

I briefly describe present-day evolution science, and why the evidence for this is considered overwhelming, having earned endorsements from national academies worldwide, including the academies of several predominantly Muslim countries.

I show how Muslim thinkers (especially Al Biruni and Ibn Sina) went beyond Aristotle’s mere assertion that the Earth is old (for Aristotle, infinitely old), by observing and discussing fossils and sediments in an unmistakably scientific manner. I also discuss widespread claims that Islamic scholars had anticipated modern evolutionary thought, and come to the sad conclusion that these are not warranted. What is being described, by sources as diverse as the poet Rumi, the Ikhwan al-SafaI (Brethren of Purity, 8 – 10 C CE), and the pioneer social scientist Ibn Khaldun in 1377 CE, is the Great Chain of Being, derived from Aristotelian thought, and represents stages of development, but does not imply common descent, or change over time. I also look at the claims made on behalf of al Tusi, but fear that these will not stand examination.

The one clear example that I do find of anticipation of the central ideas of mutability of species and common descent comes from al Jahiz’s delightful Kitab al-Hayawan (Book of Living Things, 9 C CE), where among much other interesting material (though the story of birds cleaning crocodiles’ teeth is, alas, suspect) he correctly suggests common ancestry for wolves, dogs, and foxes.

The Crocodile from The Book of Animals by Al-Jahiz Credit: © Veneranda Biblioteca Ambrosiana, Milan, Italy/Bridgeman Images, via PhotoEditor61

I would be delighted to hear of other examples, provided these are accompanied by links to reliable translations (I regret that I cannot read Arabic or Persian) of the original material. I am of course aware of a great deal of twentieth and twentyfirst century literature that makes such claims, but on examination I have so far found these to be simply back-projection. We must also remember that earlier thinkers must be judge in the context of their own times, that they were unaware of the significance that observations would require at a later stage, and that to judge them according to how well they happen to agree with us, with our vastly expanded knowledge base, is unhistorical and, indeed, patronising.

On the relationship between evolution and Islam, I have this to say:

It is not my place to discuss this. I will merely point out that debate between those who accept and those who reject evolution can be found within all the Abrahamic religions, with discussion hingeing on the ways in which the ancient sacred text should be interpreted by a modern reader (Marwa Elshakry, of Columbia University History Department gives a scholarly account1). There are those who protect traditional interpretations by rejecting evolution, but such rejection carries a high cost since it creates a conflict between faith and worldly knowledge. And there are those who attempt to evade this conflict by denying the plain scientific facts; here the cost is even higher. There was a recent vigorous discussion of these topics organized by the Deen Institute,2 and the scientific academies of Bangladesh, Egypt, Indonesia, Morocco, Pakistan, Palestine, Turkey and Uzbekistan have joined others worldwide in affirming evolution.3

On the Muslim Heritage Facebook page, my article has received over 2000 “likes”. I am grateful to the editorial staff of Muslim Heritage for inviting me to contribute this article, and to Ehab Abouheif, Jim Al-Khalili, Glenn Branch, J. E. Montgomery, Cem Nizamoglu, Rebecca Stott, and Douglas Theobald for helpful discussions.

I will be posting a fuller summary of my rather lengthy article in due course.

1] Marwa Elshakry, Reading Darwin in Arabic, 1860-1950, University of Chicago Press, 2013.

2] “Muslim leaders urge Islamic community to rethink evolution theory” by Omar Shahid

3] IAP on the Teaching of Evolution


The Little Puddlian Philosophical Society and the Fine Tuning Argument

Puddle theory, according to Wikipedia, is “a term coined by Douglas Adams to satirize arguments that the universe is made for man. As stated in Adams’s book The Salmon of Doubt:

“imagine a puddle waking up one morning and thinking, ‘This is an interesting world I find myself in, an interesting hole I find myself in, fits me rather neatly, doesn’t it? In fact, it fits me staggeringly well, must have been made to have me in it!’ This is such a powerful idea that as the sun rises in the sky and the air heats up and as, gradually, the puddle gets smaller and smaller, it’s still frantically hanging on to the notion that everything’s going to be all right, because this World was meant to have him in it, was built to have him in it; so the moment he disappears catches him rather by surprise. I think this may be something we need to be on the watch out for.”

I yield to no one in my admiration for Douglas Adams, and admire here in particular his reminder that our place in the Universe may really be rather precarious. However, on this occasion he had been anticipated. Read the rest of this entry

Sahelanthropus, evolution, and the word “theory”; what Mike Pence really said

The now Vice-President of the United States stands accused of having said that evolution is “just a theory”; see here and here. No he did not say that. What he did say (full text below, with notes) was far, far worse. Much more detailed and much more dangerous.

L: Pence being sworn in as a member of the House Education and Workforce Committee (CNN)

After reminding us that he was trained in law and history, he mangles the historical facts and legal significance of a key court case (the Scopes trial).

By quotemining a secondary source,* which he treats as if primary, he twists the then-recent discovery of Sahelanthropus into an argument against the underlying science. It is changeable, he argues, therefore it is uncertain.

He justifies this manoeuvre by harping on the ambiguous word “theory”, and making a falsely rigid distinction between theory and fact.

Sahelanthropus tchadensis SmithsonianR: Sahelanthropus tchadensis, photo from Smithsonian Human Origins website

And worst of all, he asks his colleagues to “demand [emphasis added] that educators around America teach evolution not as fact, but as theory”. The proponent, when it suits him, of small Government wants Washington to tell teachers how to teach.

Pence has been accused of stupidity because of the factual and logical errors contained in his speech. On the contrary, Read the rest of this entry

Reality imitates satire; smoking, climate change, and EPA chief Scott Pruitt

Jim (seated) consults Sir Humphrey

Wishing, as I recall, to evade the scientific consensus on smoking and lung cancer, Yes Minister‘s Jim Hacker turned for advice to his Civil Servant Sir Humphrey Appleby. The conversaton went something like this (I would be glad of a link to the exact transcript):

Sir Humphrey: Say the scientists disagree. Say that more research is needed.

Jim: But I thought the science was settled …

Sir Humphrey: Those scientists are always disagreeing about something, and there is  always a need for more research.

Now this, from Science magazine’s online website: Read the rest of this entry

Billy Sunday, Creationism, and the Klan connection

There is nothing new about the alliance between American evangelical Christianity and white supremacism, although the party alignment of this alliance has changed over the years. And one of the pleasures of blogging is how one comes across interesting facts, and interesting people. My email today illustrates both these points:

Research query: Billy Sunday

Hello Paul Braterman,

By way of introduction I am the retired bass trombonist of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and retired Professor of Trombone at Arizona State University. I am at work on a book for University of Illinois Press about Homer Rodeheaver, the trombone-playing song leader for Billy Sunday in the first third of the 20th century.

A research thread that is currently occupying my interest is the role the Ku Klux Klan played in Billy Sunday meetings.
I came across your blog post: [the link is to my post, The Scopes “Monkey trial”, Part 2: Evidence, Confrontation, Resolution, Consequences]

In the paragraph below the image of Sunday preaching by George Bellows, you write “There also was a Klan night.”

The image referred to: Billy Sunday portrait by George Bellows, Metropolitan Magazine 1915, via Wikipedia. Click to enlarge (it’s worth it)

I am aware of a number of occasions when Klan members- both hooded and Read the rest of this entry

Genetics provide powerful evidence of evolution

An excellent survey from The Logic of Science, with striking examples. At every level of detail, the family trees inferred from morphology match the trees established by molecular biology.

The Logic of Science

Many people are under the false impression that evolution is just a guess or a belief, when in reality, it is one of the most well-supported concepts in all of science. The evidence for it is overwhelming and comes from many different disciplines such as paleontology, comparative anatomy, biogeography, and perhaps most significantly, genetics. Indeed, modern genetic tools have allowed us to repeatedly test evolution’s predictions, and those predictions have consistently come true. Therefore, I am going to explain in simple terms what the genetic evidence is and why it is so compelling. As I will show, the evidence perfectly matches the predictions that the theory of evolution made decades before we could test those predictions. Further, the patterns do not make sense if our modern organisms were specially created, because there is no reason why a creator would have had to make life with these patterns. In other…

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Evolution is not progress

Evolution has nothing to do with progress. Most evolution doesn’t even have anything to do with adaptation, and it is perfectly possible for a change that is worse than useless to spread through a population. Paradoxically, however, such non-adaptive change may be a necessary prelude for major adaptations.

This post was inspired by a recent opinion piece (open access here1)  in BMC Biology, entitled “Splendor and misery of adaptation, or the importance of neutral null for understanding evolution” (I will explain what “neutral null” means later). The paper itself is in parts highly technical, with 86 references to the original scientific literature, but I will try here to give a general overview of some of the main conclusions, and to place them in context.

Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution – Dobzhanski, American Biology Teacher, 1973

Nothing in evolution makes sense except in the light of population genetics – Lynch, PNAS, 2007

Darwin and Wallace both thought that evolution was driven by selection. If so, then whenever we find a feature in an organism, Read the rest of this entry

Even on his birthday, don’t say Darwin unless you mean it (updated)

How Darwin’s name is taken in vain, with mini-reviews of some of the worst offenders. And when I wrote about this last year, I did not expect to have to add a US Vice-President to their number.

Charles Darwin never thought of evolution as anything other than a theory. He hoped that someday it would be proven by the fossil record but did not live to see that, nor have we. – Representative (now Vice-President) Mike Pence, 2002, via Forbes


From Darwin’s Notebook B, 1837

Don’t say Darwin unless you mean it. Don’t say theory when you mean historical fact. And don’t say you believe in evolution, when you mean you accept it on the basis of the evidence.

Don’t say Darwin unless you mean it. Above all, don’t say “Darwin” when you mean “evolution”. It’s like saying “Dalton” when you mean atoms. Our understanding of atoms has moved on enormously since Dalton’s time, and our understanding of evolution has moved on similarly since Darwin’s. Neither of them knew, or could have known, anything about what caused the phenomena they were talking about, and both would be delighted at how thoroughly their own work has been superseded. Read the rest of this entry

Removing Church nominees from Education Committees: Good news from Petitions Committee


The story so far: Our petition attracted over 700 signatures, some notable, and Spencer Fildes and I were invited to give evidence on it before the Public Petitions Committee last November (shown above; see here for more).  After submitting us to attentive but not unfriendly cross-examination, the Committee decided to write to a number of interested parties, whose submissions you will find on the petition website, together  with my own response. It met again last Thursday, to consider what action to take, and the official report  is now available here under Continued Petitions, and reproduced below for completeness.

Now read on: We had hoped that at this point they would decide to forward the matter to the Education and Skills Committee, going down much the same road as a related petition did three years ago. What happened, however, was potentially far more favourable to our case. It is relevant that the Convener is Johann Lamont, a very senior, independent-minded, and able parliamentarian, who has said of herself “I have been a committee convener, proud of building consensus where possible, to test legislation and to challenge the government of the day.” Read the rest of this entry

Socrates: ancient Humanist? (reblogged from Footnotes to Plato)

If you want to know more about Socrates, or Humanism, or anything else that really matters, this is for you.

And the horns of Euthyphro’s Dilemma, described here, are as sharp as ever. This morning, February 2nd, a committee of the Scottish Parliament is considering the Scottish Secular Society petition for the removal of the church representatives who sit, immune from electoral scrutiny, on Scottish Local Education Authority Committees. Defenders of the status quo argue that they have an important role to play in transmitting Christian values. The petition (which I helped write) argues that if a value is specifically Christian, it will not necessarily be shared by the non-Christians who now form a majority among young Scots, while if it is not specifically Christian, we do not need a church representative to instruct us in it. The derivation from Euthyphro is obvious.

More on the petition on this blog and on the Parliamentary website. Updates as available. Massimo Pigliucci’s essay, below, speaks for itself, and I am flattered that he approves the use that the petition made of Socrates’ argument.

Footnotes to Plato

MNR-Socrate Socrates, Roman National Museum, photo by the Author

As part of my ongoing occasional series aiming at bringing some of my own technical papers to the attention of a wider public (after all, what the hell is the point of doing scholarship if it only benefits other scholars?), below I reprint a paper I recently published in The Human Prospect. It inquires on the possibility of interpreting Socrates as a proto-Humanist of sorts, and it therefore includes a discussion of Humanism as a philosophy of life, as well its likely stemming from the ancient Greco-Roman tradition of virtue ethics (via the mediation of the Renaissance Humanists, which were informed by, and yet were reacting against, medieval Christianity).

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