Category Archives: History of Science

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

The “scientific method”, a needless stumbling block. With a note on falsification

Science does not have a separate special method for learning about the world, the “scientific method” as taught in schools is a damaging illusion, and the falsifiability criterion has itself been falsified

Below, R: How not to; “The Scientific Method”, as inflicted on Science Fair participants. Click to enlarge

Consider this, from a justly esteemed chemistry text:

Scientists are always on the lookout for patterns.… Once they have detected patterns, scientists develop hypotheses… After formulating a hypotheses, scientists design further experiments [emphasis in original]

Or this, from a very recent post to a popular website:

The scientific method in a nutshell:
1. Ask a question
2. Do background research
3. Construct a hypothesis
4. Test your hypothesis by doing experiments
5. Analyze your data and draw conclusions
6. Communicate your results [emphasis in original]

Then, if you find yourself nodding in agreement, consider this:

Since a scientific theory, by definition, must be testable by repeatable observations and must be capable of being falsified if indeed it were false, a scientific theory can only attempt to explain processes and events that are presently occurring repeatedly within our observations. Theories about history, although interesting and often fruitful, are not scientific theories, even though they may be related to other theories which do fulfill the criteria of a scientific theory.

If you are familiar with the creation-evolution “controversy”, you may well suspect that last example of being so much creationist waffle, intended to discredit the whole of present-day geology and evolutionary biology. And you would be right. This quotation is from Duane Gish, a major figure in the twentieth century revival of biblical literalist creationism, writing for the Institute of Creation Research.1

L: Mike Pence, ” [N]ow that we have recognised evolution as a theory… can we also consider teaching other theories of the origin of species?”

Such nonsense isn’t funny any more, if it ever was. The man who may very soon find himself President of the United States is an eloquent spokesman for creationism.

And yet Gish’s remarks seem to follow from the view of science put forward in the first two excerpts. What has gone wrong here? Practically everything. Read the rest of this entry

Creationist nonsense on geology; the odd case of Prof McIntosh D.Sc.

Image result for andy mcintoshCatastrophism versus gradualism; this controversy was laid to rest by TH Huxley in his 1869 Address to the Geological Society, but UK Young Earth Creationists persist in parading the corpse as if it presented a living challenge to current thinking. Perhaps it appeals to their absolutist binary mindset.

McIntosh himself is a member of the group mendaciously mislabelled Truth in Science, which distributed the equally mendacious neo-creationist tract Exploring Evolution to UK schools some years ago, and is an author of the error-saturated Origins, Examining the Evidence, published by that group. BCSE has published a detailed review of Exploring Evolution here.

This piece by my friend, the geologist historian Anglican priest Michael Roberts, will tell you more about McIntosh’s writing than you wish to know, but will convey a wealth of fascinating geological and historical information in the process.

Peddling and Scaling God and Darwin


Image result for andy mcintosh

One of the best selling British creationist books is Genesis for Today by Andy McIntosh, which is now in its 5th edition.

Most of the book is a popular exposition of Genesis 1 to 11 – and some of it I agree with, but not his insistence that it is literal history.

In Genesis for Today McIntosh gives three scientific appendices, which are much the same in the 1st and 5th editions.  I could either go through and nit-pick his geological errors or consider them under main headings. I have chosen the latter.

Image result

Most would think that a professor in a scientific discipline at a leading university (with a first-rate geology department) would be able to make a reasonable showing on geology.Many amateurs and non-geologists I’ve met in geological societies have a clear grasp.

From the whole of his book, other writings and…

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The Woman Who Studied the Sun

File:Cecilia Helena Payne Gaposchkin (1900-1979) (3).jpg

Cecilia Payne-Gaposhkin at work; Smithsonian Institute Archives via Wikipedia

I just came across this piece by John Gribbin, interesting for many reasons.
Glasgow University started awarding degrees to women in 1892; contrast Cambridge University’s 1948.
Auguste Comte, 1835: “We will never be able to determine the chemical composition of the stars”.
1802, Wollaston observes Fraunhofer lines
1814, Fraunhofer independently observes Fraunhofer lines. Perhaps a reader can tell me why they are named after Fraunhofer, not Wollaston
1859, Kirchhoff (of circuit laws fame) and, independently, Bunsen (of Bunsen burner fame) match Fraunhofer lines to atomic spectra, infer chemical composition of stars
1868, Lockyer correctly identifies third solar Fraunhofer line in “sodium yellow” region as due to a new element, names it “helium”
1892, Glasgow University starts awarding degrees to women
~1923 (see below), Cecilia Payne (later Payne-Gaposhkin) completes studies at Cambridge, but cannot formally graduate because she is a woman
1925, Cecilia Payne gains Ph.D. from Radcliffe; unravels highly complex (see below) Fraunhofer lines of stars; shows that, contrary to all then current expectation, stellar composition is dominated by hydrogen and helium
1948, Cambridge University starts awarding degrees to women


Posting this in response to a question I was asked.  It is essentially an extract from my book 13.8

Cecilia Payne won a scholarship to Newnham College, Cambridge (the only way she could have afforded a university education) in 1919. She studied botany, physics and chemistry, but also attended a talk by Arthur Eddington about the eclipse expedition on which he had famously “proved Einstein right” by measuring the way light from distant stars was bent by the Sun. This fired her interest in astronomy, and she visited the university’s observatory on an open night, plying the staff with so many questions that Eddington took an interest, and offered her the run of the observatory library, where she read about the latest developments in the astronomical journals.

After completing her studies (as a woman, she was allowed to complete a degree course, but could not be awarded a degree; Cambridge…

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Clay tablet casts new light on origins of Genesis are puzzled by the significance of a cuneiform tablet dating to around 1400 BCE, recently discovered during excavations in Sumeria. A tentative translation, still controversial, is as follows:

“From Moses, General Secretary of the Brickmakers Union, Land of Goshen, greetings.

Moses Michaelangelo September 2015-1.jpg

Moses, contemporary scupture, holding what is thought to be this tablet

From my measurements of the sedimentology of the Nile Delta, I estimate that the river has been depositing sediment there for many tens of thousands of years. Concerning the origin of mankind, I am now convinced that we, the jabbering creatures of West Africa, and the knuckle-walking giants who live beyond Numidia are different species of the same family.

However, You-Know-Who has told me to come up with a simplified version of the story, which my members will be more capable of understanding.

Nile Delta in ancient times (Wikipedia)

I wonder if there is anything suitable among your own traditional mythologies. In particular, since the Internet has not yet been invented, can you send me by camel post a preprint of Enuma Elish. And if possible, an advance copy of your pending publication, The Flood of Gilgamesh. Read the rest of this entry

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


Is “The Imminent Demise of Evolution” still imminent?

The demise of evolution, and of the geology necessary to support it, has been imminent since 1825. I hear and tremble.

My friend the rev Michael Roberts has reblogged my link here, with reference to his own experience. Michael is Anglican Priest, geologist, and historian, and has been following Creationist infiltration into the UK churches  for some decades.

Troy Britain’s piece reblogged here refers in turn to G.R. Morton’s classical compilation. Morton’s piece was originally posted on Answers in Science. The link from Morton to Answers in Science failed to work for me, but I am happy to say  that a direct link, here, works admirably as a source and resource.

Playing Chess with Pigeons

Ten years ago, in 2006, intelligent design creationistWilliam Dembski predictedthat in a decade evolution would be toast:

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) – To William Dembski, all the debate in this country over evolution won’t matter in a decade.

By then, he says, the theory of evolution put forth by Charles Darwin 150 years ago will be “dead.”

Yeah, well…

Meanwhile I stumbled uponthis today (dated 11-17-2016) from young Earth creationistRichard William Nelson:

Despite a flood of challenges since the publication of The Origin of Species in 1859 by Charles Darwin and more than 150 years of unprecedented scientific efforts in the history of mankind to prove otherwise, the evidence examined in nature tooled with unprecedented technology continues to be compatible with the Genesis record written by Moses…

…Evolution, once a theory in crisis, is now in crisis without even a cohesive unifying theory.

Biological evolution…

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Atoms Old and New, 2: From Newton to Einstein

Part 1 of this series, “Atoms Old and New: Atoms in Antiquity” can be read here.

The transition to modern thinking

“It seems probable to me, that God in the beginning formed matter in solid, massy, hard, impenetrable, movable particles… even so very hard, as never to wear or break in pieces; no ordinary power being able to divide what God Himself made one in the first creation.” So wrote Sir Isaac Newton in his 1704 work, Opticks. Apart from the reference to God, there is nothing here that Democritus would have disagreed with. There is, however, very little that the present-day scientist would fully accept. In this and later posts, I discuss how atoms reemerged as fundamental particles, only to be exposed, in their turn, as less than fundamental.

The scientific revolution and the revival of corpuscular theory – 1543–1687

Read the rest of this entry



Darwin as a young man, watercolour by George Richmond, via Wikipedia

An excellent historical summary by my friend Michael Roberts, who has himself revisited the sites that Darwin explored in Wales. Darwin the geologist and Darwin the naturalist are inseparable.

Peddling and Scaling God and Darwin


Darwin concluded The Origin of Species with this magnificent paragraph;

It is interesting to contemplate an entangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us. These laws, taken in the largest sense, being Growth with Reproduction; inheritance which is almost implied by reproduction; Variability from the indirect and direct action of the external conditions of life, and from use and disuse; a Ratio of Increase so high as to lead to a Struggle for Life, and as a consequence to Natural Selection, entailing Divergence of Character and the Extinction of less-improved forms…

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Then and now; Darwin, Agassiz, global warming, and lakes that vanish overnight

Glen Roy is a valley in the Western Scottish Highlands, just south of the Great Glen (home to Loch Ness), and draining through Glen Spean to Loch Linnhe, an inlet of the Atlantic. It is remarkable for the presence of the Roads, a series of parallel, almost horizontal, grooves in the hills on the sides of the glen. Clearly shorelines; but of what body of water? And why are there more than one of them?


From Darwin, C. R., Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society 129: 39-81, 1839. Observations on the parallel roads of Glen Roy, and of other parts of Lochaber in Scotland, with an attempt to prove that they are of marine origin.

Darwin thought the Roads represented vanished marine shorelines, one above the other as the result of vertical movement. Agassiz explained them, rather, as successive shorelines of a glacial lake, now vanished because the retaining glacier has melted away. If so, and if global warming is real, we might expect to see vanishing lakes today, as the glaciers retreat. We can, and we do, as my friend Peter Hess explains.


Sedimentary (greywacke) erratic (approx. height 1 m) on glaciated slopes around Dunglass Crag, near Glasgow, transported from original location some 30 km to the North

Charles Darwin visited the Glenroy area in 1838, two years after his return from his round the world voyage on the Beagle. During that voyage, he had examined the geology as well as the plants and animals of the places he visited, and among them was the coastal area of Chile. This is marked by raised beaches inland where once had been shoreline, and Darwin correctly described these as the effects of uplift, which we now know to be driven by plate tectonics. So it was natural that Darwin should have applied a similar explanation to the Roads, suggesting that the Cairngorms, like the Andes, were a zone of uplift, and that the Roads were ancient beaches of the Atlantic, now some ten miles away. The alternative theory, that they represented shorelines of an ancient lake, ran up against a seemingly conclusive objection; such a lake could only have formed if there had been a barrier across the valley, but there was no trace of this.

Only a year later, the Swiss naturalist Louis Agassiz visited the area. He had just published his Ice Age theory, and in the Highlands he found plenty of evidence to support it; scratches on bedrock caused by the passage of glaciers, erratics (boulders far from their parent rock formations),  and moraines (piles of rock rubble that had been carried by glaciers, left in place when the glacier melted).


A glacier-sculpted landscape. The hard basalt of Dunglass Crag, an ancient volcanic plug, has protected the softer rock downstream (right in photograph) from erosion

Evidence of this kind is not difficult to find throughout much of Scotland. I saw some of it myself earlier this month a few miles from Glasgow as a student on Glasgow University extension course (see illustrations). Agassiz realised that his ice age theory also provided the correct answer to the mystery of the Roads. Yes, there had been a lake, and yes, the roads did represent the shorelines at different times, carved into the sides of the valley by fierce freeze-thaw cycles. As for the barriers holding the lake in place at different levels over the course of time, they were a series of long vanished glaciers.

We now know that Agassiz was basically correct. Indeed, we can trace a whole series of glaciations, not just a single ice age. And Darwin was right in thinking that the area has experienced uplift; it could not fail to do so as the weight of ice above it melted away.


Poorly sorted rubble deposited by the glacier near the foot of the Crag

Later Darwin was to write of his paper on the Roads as his greatest blunder. He had visited Snowdonia in North Wales in 1831, as a student companion of the noted geologist Adam Sedgwick, who had been looking for fossils. In his Autobiography (p. 70) he laments how

“neither of us saw a trace of the wonderful glacial phenomena all around us; we did not notice the plainly scored rocks, the perched boulders, the lateral and terminal moraines. Yet these phenomena are so conspicuous that … a house burnt down by fire did not tell its story more plainly than did this valley.”

But it took Darwin several years to reach this point, and even then he persisted for a while with hybrid explanations, in which icebergs rather than retreating glaciers had deposited at least some of the erratics.


“Darwin’s boulders” in Cwm Idwal, Snowdonia, North Wales. Darwin had recognise these as glacial by 1842

Agassiz rejected Darwin’s concept of evolution when it was published twenty years later, but this does not seem to have diminished Darwin’s respect for him. Belief in the fixity of species was, in the 1860s, understandable conservatism, even if now, 150 years later, it is no more than deliberately cultivated ignorance.

The present is key to the past. It follows that the past can increase our understanding of the present. And so it is in this case. The glaciers of Switzerland are receding. Those of the southern Andes are receding even faster. Among them is Chile’s Colonia glacier, which dams a lake, Lake Cachet 2, some 3 square kilometers in area. As the glacier shrinks and weakens, it becomes progressively less able to hold back the water of the lake, which now periodically bursts through; on one recent occasion, the lake emptied itself overnight.


Lake to sandy valley overnight

The overflow channel through which the vanished Loch Roy must have drained can still be detected as an abrupt narrow valley in the surrounding hillsides. The draining of Lake Cachet II sent 200,000 tonnes of water overnight down Chile’s main river, and caused giant waves as far as the Pacific Ocean, 60 miles away.

Since Agassiz and Darwin examined the roads of Glen Roy, the earth’s mean surface temperature has increased by roughly 1oC, with another 0.5oC in the pipeline even if emissions were to be stabilised at the same levels as in the year 2000.

Which, of course, they won’t be.


Global mean surface temperature change from 1880 to 2015, relative to the 1951–1980 mean. The black line is the annual mean and the red line is the 5-year running mean

Darwin’s drawing of the Roads from Darwin Online.  Dunglass Crag, photos by author. Darwin’s boulders photographed by Michael Roberts. Lake Cachet II images via NCSE. Global temperature anomaly graph from NASA GISS via Wikipedia

More on receding glaciers at World Glacier Monitoring Service  and the US Government’s National Snow and Ice Data Center

h/t Michael Roberts, Dana Nuccitelli, Peter Hess. An earlier version of this post appeared in 3 Quarks Daily.

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