Category Archives: Education

The Scopes “Monkey trial”, Part 2: Evidence, Confrontation, Resolution, Consequences

This weekend sees the 93rd anniversary of the Scopes Trial, and I am reposting this and its companion piece to celebrate.

I would point out two things. One is that the actual William Jennings Bryan was nothing like the ogre of Inherit the Wind, which was an allegory of McCarthyism. The other is how remarkably well the scientific evidence has stood up to almost a century of examination. There is even a mention, based on serological evidence, of how closely related whales are to hoofed land animals.

Primate's Progress

Darrow: Did you ever discover where Cain got his wife?

Bryan: No, sir; I leave the agnostics to hunt for her.

Both sides, I will argue, were long-term loses in this exchange. But why were such matters being discussed in Tennessee court of law in the first place?

Part 1: the story so far: An extraordinary case indeed, where a school teacher, with the encouragement of his own superintendent, volunteers to go on trial in the State court for the crime of teaching from the State’s approved textbook, and where that same superintendent will be the first witness called against him. And where a mere misdemeanour case, with a maximum penalty of $500, could attract the participation of William Jennings Bryan, former US Secretary of State, and Clarence Darrow, America’s most famous trial lawyer and an agnostic.

BillySundayPreaching Billy Sunday preaching

In the run-up to the case, we even have the…

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The Scopes “Monkey trial”, Part 1: Issues, Fact, and Fiction

This weekend sees the 93rd anniversary of the Scopes Trial, and I am reposting this and its companion piece to celebrate.

I would point out two things. One is that the actual William Jennings Bryan was nothing like the ogre of Inherit the Wind, which was an allegory of McCarthyism. The other is how remarkably well the scientific evidence has stood up to almost a century of examination. There is even a mention, based on serological evidence, of how closely related whales are to hoofed land animals.

Primate's Progress

What is the purpose of this examination?

We have the purpose of preventing bigots and ignoramuses from controlling the education of the United States, and that is all.

DaytonCourthouse Dayton Courthouse today

Inherit the Wind, the prism through which the public sees the Scopes Trial, is a travesty. William Jennings Bryan, who prosecuted Scopes, was neither a buffoon nor a biblical literalist but moved by deep concerns that continue to merit attention. He did not protest at the leniency of Scopes’s punishment, but offered to pay the fine out of his own pocket. Nor did he collapse in defeat at the end of the trial, but drove hundreds of miles, and delivered two major speeches, before dying in his sleep a week later. Scopes, on trial for the crime of teaching evolution in Tennessee state school, was never at risk of prison. He was no martyr, but a willing participant…

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Why historical science is the best kind of science

This is for a planned wide-audience writing project on evolution, in which I pre-empt (rather than respond to) creationists’ counter-arguments, such as their downplaying of historical science. I would greatly value comments on this approach.

There are sciences, such as physics and chemistry, where we can perform experiments. There are other sciences, such as the science of planetary motion (and astronomy in general) where we cannot do this, but we can still carry out repeated observations in well-controlled circumstances, and devise theories with whose help we can make definite predictions. All of these are what I will call rule-seeking sciences. At the other extreme, we have sciences such as palaeontology and much of geology, which one might call historical sciences.1 With these, the aim is not so much to establish general rules, as to unravel and explain the specifics of what happened in the past. It is usual to regard the rule-seeking sciences as the most rigorous, to which the others should defer. This shows a deep misunderstanding of how science works, and, time and time again, when historical and rule-seeking sciences have come into conflict, it is historical science that has triumphed.

Rocks exposed at Grand Canyon, from Proterozoic to Permian. Click to enlarge

A few examples. The rocks clearly show (for detailed arguments, see e.g. here) that the Earth, and by implication the Sun, Read the rest of this entry

Evolution, the Iraqi Translation Project, and science in the Arab World

Translations change the course of civilisations. The translation project begun by Caliph al-Mansour in the 8th century CE, and accelerated under his grandson Harun al-Rashid, made available in Arabic scholarly writings from Greek, Aramaic (Syriac), Persian, and Indian sources, and laid the foundation for the flowering of science and philosophy in the Islamic world during Europe’s Dark Ages. A second translation project, from the 10th century onwards, was in the other direction, from Arabic to Latin. Among its initiators was Gerbert d’Aurillac, the future Pope Sylvester II, and it reached its height in Toledo in Spain where for a while Christianity and Islam came into close contact and where Gerard of Cremona translated al Khwarismi and Avicenna (ibn Sina), as well as Arabic versions of works by Ptolemy and Aristotle. It refreshed Europe’s contact with classical learning, while also conveying what was then current scholarship. It was the pathway through which Christian Europe rediscovered Aristotle, while Avicenna’s clinical expertise is mentioned in the Canterbury Tales. His writings on geology, which I have discussed elsewhere, were among those translated at this time, but originally misattributed to Aristotle.

Avicenna_Expounding_Pharmacy_to_his_Pupils_Wellcome_L0008688L: Avicenna expounding pharmacy to his pupils, from the 15th century “Great Cannon [sic] of Avicenna”; Wellcome Library via Wikimedia. Click to enlarge.

Happily, if belatedly, another translation project is now under way, from English to Arabic, focused largely on science-related topics of general interest, with special attention to evolution.

Why evolution? Not only because of its central role in modern life sciences, but because Read the rest of this entry

Intelligent Design or intricate deception? What I told students during the Kitzmiller trial

Dec 20 is the anniversary of the Kitzmiller decision, an early Christmas day present for science and common sense. But when I first wrote here “Judge E. Jones III’s ruling is … unlikely to be challenged unless at some later date the US Supreme Court acquires a creationist majority”  I had not foreseen a creationist Vice-President. Take nothing for granted.

Primate's Progress

Unt The University of North Texas, where I was teaching in 2005

Kitzmiller v Dover Area School District, in which judgment was pronounced on 20th December 2005, is the court case that established that Intelligent Design is not science, but a form of religiously motivated creationism, and as such may not be taught in publicly funded schools in the US.This is a shortened version of what I told the students at Texas Academy of Mathematics and Science, University of North Texas’s early admissions programme, whom I was privileged to be teaching at the time of the trial. I have omitted my discussion of the embarrassing Intelligent Design pseudotext, Of Pandas and People, and the even more embarrassing statement that the Dover School Board instructed teachers to read, for reasons of space and because I have discussed them here before.  I have tried to avoid rewriting in…

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If you are interested in evolution, get this book

EVOLUTION: What the Fossils Say and why it Matters, Donald R. Prothero (2nd edition)

If you are interested in evolution, get this book. And make sure that your library gets it. And your children’s highschool library. Incidentally, it’s incredible value; list price $35.00/£27.95 from Columbia University Press, with over 400 lavishly illustrated pages.

The book is a comprehensive survey of the fossil record, supplemented at times with other evidence, and framed as one long argument against creationism. It opens with a general discussion of the ideas behind current evolutionary thinking, moves on to a survey of specific topics in (mainly animal) evolution, from the origins of life to the emergence of humanity, and concludes with a brief discussion of the threat that creationism poses to rational thinking. The argument is laid out clearly in the seemingly artless prose of an accomplished writer in love with his subject matter, with plain language explanations that presume no prior knowledge, while the detailed discussions of specific topics give enough detail to be of value, I would imagine, even to a professional in the field. The author is an experienced educator and researcher, with thirty books ranging from the highly technical to the popular, some 300 research papers, and numerous public appearances to his credit, and the work is copiously illustrated with photos, diagrams, and drawings by the author’s colleague, Carl Buell. These illustrations are an integral part of the work, graphically displaying the richness of the data at the heart of the argument. Read the rest of this entry

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

On learning that the Iraqi government is dropping evolution from schoolbooks

This is how I appeared on Arabic-language Science News, أخبار العلوم – Science News, after a Facebook friend translated my remarks into Arabic

Teaching biology without mentioning evolution is like trying to teach chemistry without mentioning atoms. If you deny evolution, you have to deny the entire fossil record and also all the evidence of molecular biology. And evolution has nothing to do with religion. Within all the world’s great religions, there are thinkers who accept the evidence for evolution, and regard evolution itself as one of God’s creations. We do not allow scientists to tell religious leaders how to teach religion, so why should we allow religious leaders to tell scientists how to teach science?

The destroyed al-Nuri mosque and its gate in the old city of Mosul. Photograph: Ahmad Al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty Images (via The Guardian)

 

 

 

Commenting on the recent decision by the Iraqi government to remove evolution from the school textbooks, I wrote these words to one of my many new-found Iraqi friends [1], a young man in Mosul now able to speak his mind after three years of Isis suppression; he then quoted me on Arabic-language Science News, أخبار العلوم – Science News, which has led in the first 12 hours to a brisk correspondence, more than a thousand likes, over fifty shares, and some not always friendly commentary in which chimpanzees feature prominently in my own assumed ancestry. I can only express my admiration for someone who, sheltering somehow in the ruins of that city, finds time to think of such things.

1] My piece on evolution in The Conversation was noticed by a Baghdad-based Arabic-language blog

Brag time: My “Slam Dunk to Creationists” attacked by Discovery Institute

The Discovery Institute, self appointed spokesman for Intelligent Design theory (i.e. cryptocreationist obscurantism) has singled out my piece in The Conversation, How to slam dunk creationists when it comes to the theory of evolution.

Slam Dunk image plagiarised from Discovery Institute. Provenance unknown

My piece argues that we should be talking about the evidence, not about the meaning of words. In particular, I take exception to the National Academy of Sciences definition of a theory as “supported by a vast body of evidence”, on the grounds that calling something a theory tells us nothing about how well supported it is. The Discovery Institute uses fancy layout to quotemine what I said, so that my criticism of the National Academy is made to look like approval, before taking exception to the National Academy of Sciences definition of a theory as “supported by a vast body of evidence”, on the grounds that calling something a theory tells us nothing about how well supported it is.

In passing, the DI also tells us that “Sahelanthropus … is thought by some to just be a female gorilla.” Eat your heart out, Smithsonian.

I’m honoured by such well-informed and well thought out attention. And while the DI’s article is unsigned, connoisseurs of Creationism will understand my additional delight at having Casey Luskin and Douglas Axe listed among my accusers. With enemies like this, who needs friends?

At the time of writing, my piece has attracted 78,000 hits [update: 95,000 hits] and been featured by Newsweek, Business Insider, The Raw Story, RealClearScience, and others. My thanks to Jane Wright, at The Conversation, whose skilful editing helped make all this possible.

[The read count by end 2017 was >307,000, with ~250,000 additional hits via Yahoo! News. The article was also translated into Arabic by the Iraqi Translation Project]

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