Category Archives: Evolution

When dinosaurs roamed the Western Isles

Quite a challenge, I expect, to the local Free Presbyterians.

My friend Kim Johnson commented on the strange appearance of the footprints, Steve Drury (author of the blog of which this is just an annotated repost) referred me to Paige Depolo, senior author of the paper on which Steve’s post is based, and Paige replied as follows:

When it comes to the depositional environment, the tracks were formed in a low-energy lagoon and are generally preserved today as impressions into shaley limestone. Later, additional limestone layers were laid down at the site and in-filled the impressions. Those layers form the casts that we can still observe for some of the tracks today. In some cases at this site, the cast remains while the surrounding impression which it was originally infilling has been almost completely eroded. These rocks were deposited during the Middle Jurassic. Later, likely during the Paleogene, a sill was intruded immediately below the track bearing layer and the surrounding rocks were baked. The low-level contact metamorphism of the track-bearing layers definitely makes for some interesting looking exposures!

h/t Kim and Steve, and many thanks to Paige

Cuillin Hills, Isle of Skye, Scotland, UK Cuillin Hills, Isle of Skye, Scotland, UK (credit: Wikipedia)

The Isle of Skye off the northwest coast of Scotland  is known largely as a prime tourist destination, such as Dunvegan Castle with a real clan chief (The MacLeod of MacLeod) and its Faerie Flag; Britain’s only truly challenging mountains of the Black Cuillin; and, of course, the romantic connection with the Young Pretender, Charles Edward Stuart and his escape, in drag, from the clutches of the Duke ‘Butcher’ Cumberland, hence the Skye Boat Song. Geologists know it best for its flood basalts with classic stepped topography and the exhumed guts of a massive central volcano (the Cuillin), relics of the Palaeocene-Eocene (62 to 54 Ma) North Atlantic Large Igneous Province. The spectacular Loch Coruisk, a glacial corrie drowned by the sea, exposes the deepest part of the main magma chamber. It is also the lair of Scotland’s lesser…

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Why science needs philosophy (cont.), and why it matters, with examples from geology

No one, so far as I know, has any religious objection to the Periodic Table and the unifying concepts of chemistry. But some people do have religious objections to the geological record, and to the unifying concepts of geology, because these  don’t agree with what the most learned men of their time and place wrote down some two and a half thousand years ago.1 And as I argued in my last post, such people will seize on real or imagined anomalies as evidence that the entire intellectual structure is unsound. By contrast, the scientist’s response to such anomalies is to regard them as a potential source of new knowledge, far more likely to extend the framework in a mature discipline than to destroy it.

Example 1: Superposition and overthrusts


Geologcal columnIt is more than 350 years since Steno (who eventually became a bishop) proposed that strata consisted of layers of rock laid down one on top of another, newest on top. We have known for over two hundred years that both the London and Paris basins are filled with relatively recent sediment, on top of marine deposits (chalk or limestone) that emerge in hills to the North and South, that these in turn rest on an older basement, and that the more recent sediments were laid down in layers. The familiar geological sequence, Precambrian upwards (click to enlarge), was established in something like its present form before 1860, by merging the overlapping but incomplete local rock columns, although it was not until the 20th Century that it was recognised that the Precambrian occupied far more of the Earth’s history than everything since that time.

One major disruption of the usual order occurs in the northwest of Scotland, where older rocks lie above younger along a 200 km front. The resulting confusion (the “Highlands Controversy“, fuller account here) was not resolved until the 1880s, with the recognition of what is now known as the Moine Thrust. 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

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

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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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

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

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