Author Archives: Paul Braterman

What the Bishop said to the Biologist; a Victorian scandal revisited

Yes, Bishop Wilberforce really did ask TH Huxley, “Darwin’s bulldog”, whether he would prefer an ape for his grandfather, and a woman for his grandmother, or a man for his grandfather, and an ape for his grandmother. And Huxley really did say that he would prefer this to descent from a man conspicuous for his talents and eloquence, but who misused his gifts to ridicule science and obscure the light of truth. This and more at the very first public debate regarding Darwin’s work on evolution, only months after the publication of On the Origin of Species.

Oxf-uni-mus-nhL: The Oxford Museum of Natural History, where the event took place. Click on this and other images to enlarge

The debate took place at the May 1860 meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. The actual exchange is whitewashed out of the account of the meeting in the gentlemanly Athenaeum, leading some historians to wonder whether it really occurred, but a recently rediscovered contemporary account places the matter beyond doubt. What I find even more interesting, however, is the way in which argument and counter-argument between Wilberforce and Huxley, and between other supporters and opponents of the concept of evolution, prefigure arguments still being used today.

image from upload.wikimedia.orgR: 150th anniversary commemorative plaque, outside the Museum

The Athenaeum account is freely available here. The fuller account, Read the rest of this entry

tl; dr Wilberforce-Huxley encounter; Oxford Chronicle and Athenaeum accounts

1: Transcript of discussion following Draper’s initial presentation, from Oxford Chronicle and Berks and Bucks Gazette, 21 July 1860, with Athenaeum account for comparison, as reported by Richard England, with my own paragraphing for ease of reading, and with the most relevant Athenaeum alternatives for comparison; 2: Full transcript of Athenaeum accounts of  this meeting, including Prof. Draper’s presentation, preceded by its account of the meeting of 19th July, where Huxley had been goaded into participation by remarks from Richard Owen

1: Saturday session, Section D.—Zoology and botany, including physiology (Oxford Chronicle)

—Professor HUXLEY, being called upon by the chairman, declined entering into the subject, alleging the undesirability of contesting a scientific subject involving nice shades of idea before a general audience, who could not be supposed to judge upon its merits.

The discussion was then commenced by the Rev. R. GRESWELL, who denied Read the rest of this entry

Evolution Before Our Eyes: Complex Mutations in Microbes Giving New Functions

I cannot improve on this excellent survey, with its refutation of the creationist’s crucial denial that evolution generates new functional information; the most I can do is help publicise it.

Disclosure: I am cited in a footnote

Letters to Creationists


( 1 ) Barry Hall’s lac Bug

( 2 ) Lenski’s Long Term E. Coli Evolution Experiment

         Lenski’s E. coli Evolve Ability to Metabolize Citrate under Aerobic Conditions

( 3 ) Bacteriophage Lambda Evolves a New Protein Binding Site Using Four Mutations

( 4 ) The Significance of These Complex Mutations

         Plate Tectonics: An Example of Evidences

         Diverse Evidence for Evolution

( 5 ) The Core Issue in Rejecting Evolution

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

( 1 ) Barry Hall’s lac Bug

Lactose is a sugar that bacteria can use as a food. In order to do this, they first have to cut lactose in half, releasing two…

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War on Science, EPA edition

EPA administrator Scott Pruitt (image via Science Magazine article)

The Grumpy Geophysicist is too kind. “It is hard not to look at these actions and them as ostrich-like in trying to avoid hearing things you don’t want to hear.” No; the target is not what they get to hear, so much as what we get to hear. they just don’t want scientific advances that generate news stories about inconvenient facts like global warming or pollution

The Grumpy Geophysicist

UPDATE: Science has a piece fully explaining this latest expulsion of academic science from the EPA.

Some time ago, GG suggested that what many were taking as a “war on science” was more a war on particular parts of science, that the offenders were in fact exploiting science where it was financially remunerative and opposing it where it wasn’t. But actions at the Environmental Protection Agency really look like outright war on science, period.

Consider these actions:

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How NOT to talk to a Trump supporter

From “29 celebrities who endorse Donald Trump”, Business Insider October 2016

“With every ‘I told you so’ and demand that they apologize to you, personally, for the sin of being wrong, you are hardening [them] against the possibility of changing their minds. I know you may feel that you cannot be happy until they apologize, admit they were wrong, that they were stupid, that everything they ever believed about the war was in error. They know it too… [But] they don’t want to make you happy. Frankly, you haven’t given them any reason to.” Megan McArdle, The Atlantic, writing in 2008, about why so many people still refused to admit that the 2003 invasion of Iraq had led to disaster, and even persisted in believing in the face of the evidence that Saddam Hussein really had had weapons of mass destruction.

Now think how this applies to Trump supporters, as they get more and more opportunities to see what was really meant by “getting rid of Obamacare” or by “cutting taxes” or by “draining the swamp” or by “Make America Great Again”, or by “crooked” or by having someone of Trump’s moral and intellectual calibre in the White House.

Dark green shows where Trump vs Clinton outperformed Romney vs Obama. See New York Times here for key and commentary

Of course, with a little bit of effort you can do even worse than that. You can insult them. Ignore that many of them had voted for Obama (see map on right). Ignore the long slow steady slide of Democratic support in Middle America. Ignore how six decades of business as usual had done nothing or less than nothing for small town rural America. Ignore the loss of American (and other!) lives in undeclared wars that most Americans hadn’t even heard of. Ignore that the alternative to Trump was someone who saw nothing wrong in taking six-figure speaking fees from Goldman Sachs (“that’s what they offered“). Just remind them how stupid you think they are. Call them bigots too, if you like. Or deplorables. Works every time.

The McArdle quotation is from a long and thoughtful essay entitled Anger Management, on the importance of bridge-building, originally written during Iraq’s descent into chaos, but now more relevant than ever. I came across it through  Being Wrong, Kathryn Schultz’s splendid account of how we are all more or less wrong (even you and me, dear reader) most of the time, how essential this is to our growth, and how difficult it is for all of us to admit it. Especially when the Other Lot are self-righteously asking us to do so.

A final quote from McArdle: “I as well as anyone know the delights of unloading one’s accumulated venom on richly deserving targets… But I also understand that unloading, while making me feel better, does not usually advance my cause.”

Venom is not, and should not be, enough to win elections.

Rocks! –a brief illustrated primer

Rocks! -a brief illustrated primer. A superb, richly illustrated, survey from geologictimepics with detailed inks to an extensive gallery of rock types and formations. And,of course, incidentally proof of the absurdity of Young Earth “geology”


click on any image to see a larger version

Seems like most people I know like rocks. They bring home unusual rocks from vacations; they admire beautiful facing stones on buildings; they frequently ask “What is this rock”? Considering that the type of rock you’re looking at reflects the processes that caused it to form, some basic rock identification skills can go a long way to understanding our planet!

ip4086 Rock (left, igneous-granite) and minerals (right, quartz and kyanite). Notice that the granite is made of a variety of minerals.

Of course there are thousands of different rock types —But! they ALL fit into one of three categories: igneous, sedimentary, or metamorphic. Here’s a brief, illustrated summary of each.

Igneous rocks are those that form by cooling and crystallization from a molten state. Consequently, they consist of crystals of various minerals that form an interlocking mosaic like the rock in…

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How to learn from creationists

“The wise learn from everyone.”1 The freak success (half a million reads) of my recent piece How to slam dunk creationists, and the subsequent discussion, have again set me thinking about how to learn from creationists. It is not enough to say, as Dawkins notoriously said, “[I]f you meet somebody who claims not to believe in evolution, that person is ignorant, stupid or insane (or wicked, but I’d rather not consider that).” Conversation is a two-way street, I have certainly learnt from creationists’ attacks on evolution, and if I am learning from them it is at least possible that they are learning from me.

Types of comment

Comments I have had from creationists fall into three broad groups (and note that contrary to what Dawkins says, some of these are at least partly informed, highly intelligent, and completely rational):

1) Simple misstatements

2) Appeal to the Bible

3) Purportedly scientific arguments, some without merit, while others refer to important issues.

From simple misstatements, not very much can be learnt, except perhaps the source of the misinformation. Remember that if someone quotes wrong information, the burden of proof is not on you but on them. Leave it there, as in this actual exchange: Read the rest of this entry

Volcanism and sea level fall

If there were decompression melting of magma in the West Antarctic volcanic province as the icesheet thinned, that would not be good news.

If the geological Society link in the article doesn’t work for you, try this one;

Most volcanic activity stems from the rise of hot, deep rock, usually within the mantle. Pressure suppresses partial melting, so as hot rock rises the greater the chance that it will begin to melt without any rise in its temperature. That is the reason why mantle plumes are associated with many volcanic centres within plates. Extension at oceanic ridges allows upper mantle to rise in linear belts below rift systems giving rise to shallow partial melting, mid-ocean ridge basalts and sea-floor spreading. These aren’t the only processes that can reduce pressure to induce such decompression melting; any means of uplift will do, provided the rate of uplift exceeds the rate of cooling at depth. As well as tectonic uplift and erosion, melting of thick ice sheets and major falls in sea level may result in unloading of the lithosphere.

During Messinian Stage of the late Miocene up to 3 km…

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Is a good science talk really a bad science talk?

Engagement, suspense, and dramatic denouement; I wish someone had told me the importance of these at the beginning of my career, instead of leaving me to discover it half way through

The Grumpy Geophysicist

One of the mantras drilled into the heads of graduate students as they prepare their oral meeting presentations is “tell them what you are going to tell them, then tell them, then tell them what you told them.”  The point being to make sure that the audience knows what you think is important.  And at a meeting, this can be pretty significant as folks wander in and out of a room or are distracted.  That first part tells them what they should really look for (and it helps to remind the student what they are emphasizing), the last is to reaffirm that the desired goal was in fact met.

But this is probably a lousy format for a colloquium talk and even lousier for a public talk.  Think of the storytellers out there and how their stories go.  Does Hans Christian Anderson tell you what happens to the Little Mermaid…

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What do Christians really believe about evolution?

Most people in the UK think that religious people believe in six-day creationism. Fortunately, they are wrong.

Less than one in six UK believers prefer separate creation to evolution

Lucas Cranach d. Ä. 035

The Garden of Eden (Lucas Cranach the Elder (1530)). Note scenes including the creation of Eve, the temptation by the serpent, and the expulsion

A new YouGov poll conducted in Canada and the UK shows two contrasting facts. Among those who call themselves “believers or spiritual”, only 16%, under one in six, rejected evolution in favour of separate creation. A much larger group (39%) thught that “Humans and other living things evolved over time, in a process guided by God”. As an advocate of evolution science, I regard such people as potential allies. “Guided by God” is so vague an expression that it could be taken to include God having set up the laws of nature, which was actually Darwin’s own position, according to his autobiography (here, pp 92-3), when he wrote Origin of Species. (Caveat: the options offered were

  1. Humans and other living things were created by God and have always existed in their current form
  2. Humans and other living things evolved over time, in a process guided by God
  3. Humans and other living things evolved over time as a result of natural selection, in which God played no part
  4. I have another view of the origin of species and development of life on Earth which isn’t included in this list
  5. I don’t know / I do not have a view on the origin of species and the development of life on Earth

Read the rest of this entry

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