Category Archives: History of Science

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

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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