Category Archives: Humans
A badly needed numerical perspective:
The author, Gwynne Dyer, is a distinguished Canada-born historian, PhD Kings College London in military and Middle Eastern history, Senior Lecturer in military history at Sandhurst before becoming full time journalist. Some extracts:
“They are coming at the rate of about 3,000 a day, mostly through Turkey into Greece or across the Mediterranean to Italy, and the EU doesn’t know what to do about it.
It’s not really that big a refugee crisis: one million people at most this year, or one-fifth of one percent of the European Union’s 500 million people. Lebanon (population 4.5 million) has already taken in a million refugees, as has Jordan (pop. 6.5 million). But while a few of the EU’s 28 countries are behaving well, many more have descended into a gibbering panic about being ‘overrun’.”
“Chancellor Angela Merkel put it bluntly: ‘If Europe fails on the question of refugees…it will not be the Europe we imagined.’ She has put her money where her mouth is: two weeks ago she predicted that Germany would accept asylum claims from 800,000 refugees this year.”
” The most prominent [of those shirking what Gwynne Dwyer calls ‘their responsibility’] are the United Kingdom and Spain, which played a key role in sabotaging an EU meeting last June that was trying to agree on a formula for sharing the refugee burden fairly among EU members.
David Cameron’s problem is that overall immigration into Britain is high (330,000 last year) … only 25,000 were refugees – but such fine distinctions have little place in the public debate.”
A personal comment: But for accidents of time and place, every one of us is a potential refugee. I am the grandchild of refugees, and am old enough to have had friends within my tribe who were themselves refugees, and who owed their lives to having been among the few who found refuge.
Image from UNHCR
(Reblog of Terry Mortenson concedes: ‘Stone Age’ tools are a problem for YEC, Age of Rocks) Lava flows across Antrim? Blame Noah’s Flood. Palaeosols in between them? Noah’s Flood again. Moving continents? Obviously the result of Noah’s Flood. All those poor extinct dinosaurs (the ones that weren’t later exterminated by Nimrod the Mighty Hunter) – drowned in Noah’s Flood. And radiometric dates proving, by any sane standard, an ancient Earth? You guessed it; they don’t take account of the radiation associated with Noah’s Flood.
And now, with breathtaking disdain for reality, a Creationist explanation for the Palaeolithic toolmaker’s rubble that covers so much of Africa (but nowhere else). All produced by colliding rocks, during Noah’s Flood.
Wait a bit and we’ll be told that cratering on the Moon, Mars, and Mercury is somehow caused by Noah’s Flood. Come to think of it, we don’t even need to wait. There’s one school of Creationist thought, if you’ll forgive the oxymoron, the one behind Noah’s Ark Zoo Farm near Bristol, that says exactly that.
Answers in Genesis generally does well not to acknowledge its best critics, because doing so exposes their audience to the fact that theirs is a ministry rooted in pseudoscience, which is ultimately damaging to the cause of Christ. If we abhor the truth as it pertains to the natural world, how are we to persuade anyone that we hold the keys to God’s kingdom?
When AiG does respond, typically it is prefaced with caveats highlighting the ‘naturalistic’, ‘atheistic’, or ‘evolutionary’ assumptions that motivate their attackers. This strategy is effective in dismissing those like Richard Dawkins, who are not shy about such convictions, or Bill Nye, who—though less antagonistic—is still not a confessing Christian. However, as Terry Mortenson demonstrated yesterday, AiG cannot entirely ignore pleas from within the church, despite that it simultaneously informs their readers that most Christians—especially those holding advanced degrees in theology or the natural sciences—also describe creationist’s efforts as bad…
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In an earlier post, I said that the right way to undermine creationism is to promote appreciation of the science of evolution, by presenting it in ways that are engaging, enjoyable, and above all personal. In this post, I review two more books that succeed in doing this; Alice Roberts‘ The Incredible Unlikeliness of Being and Jonathan Tweet‘s Grandmother Fish.
Grandmother Fish is a book like no other I have seen. It is an introduction to evolution, for adults to read to their pre-school children. It is also much more than that, and comes with well-earned commendations from Stephen Pinker, David Sloan Wilson, and Daniel Dennett.
We start with a delightfully drawn Grandmother Fish, who lived a long, long, long, long, long time ago and could wiggle and swim fast and had jaws to chomp with. At once, this is made personally relevant: “Can you wiggle? … Can you chomp?” We proceed by way of Grandmother Reptile, Grandmother Mammal and Grandmother Ape, to Grandmother Human, who lived a long time ago, could walk on two feet and talk and tell stories, and whose many different grandchildren
could wiggle and chomp and crawl and breathe and squeak and cuddle and grab and hoot and walk and talk, and I see one of them … right here!
Each stage has its own little phylogenetic tree, with the various descendants of each successive “grandmother” shown as each other’s cousins, and there is an overall tree, covering all living things, that anyone (of any age) will find interesting to browse on. Finally, after some 20 pages of simple text and lavish illustration, there are around 4 pages of more detailed information, directed at the adult reading the book, but to which I expect children to return, as they mature, remembering the book with affection, as they surely will, years or even decades later.
So here we have nested families, family resemblance, and the development of more and more specific and complex features. And any adult, or indeed any alert child, will readily extend the discussion. Was there a grandmother cat, whose grandchildren include lions and tigers and pussy-cats, and how was she related to grandmother carnivore? Where do fossils fit in? (The tree shown includes pterodactyls, dinosaurs, and early birds.) And the most common arguments against evolution, from “only a theory” to “where are the intermediate forms?” to “if evolution is true, why are there still monkeys?” will stand immediately revealed as the nonsense they are. Indeed, one of the few statements in the endnotes that I disagree with is that “Evolution by natural selection is very difficult to understand because it doesn’t make intuitive sense.” It will, in my opinion, make perfect sense to a child who has met so clear an exposition early on, and who will therefore find it much easier to understand intuitively than, say, Noah’s Ark.
Back story: this project was crowdfunded on FaceBook, on the basis of some initial sketches and text. The author professes a long-standing interest in evolution, but his career hitherto has been elsewhere, in computer games (he was lead designer on the 3rd edition of Dungeons and Dragons). However, he has had expert advice from many people, including Eric Meikle, Education Director at the [US] National Center for Science Education.
Disclosure: I have corresponded with the author who tells me I will be thanked on the book’s website. Review based on initial draft + correspondence with author. I will be buying this book for my grandchildren as soon as it becomes available.
The Incredible Unlikeliness of Being, despite (because of?) coming from an established author and presenter, is as personal as could be. It starts with Alice Roberts’ emotional response to becoming a mother, and the incredibly unlikely being is the reader. The subject matter is (mainly) the development of the human embryo, and that developing embryo is not some third party abstraction, but you. And so evolution is also about you, as example after example throughout the book makes clear:
It’s about your evolutionary heritage, and it is about your own embryological development, when you grew in changed, part of you folding like origami, until you are shaped like a human.… This is the best creation story, because it is true.… This scientific story, pierced together from many different sources of evidence, is more extraordinary, more bizarre, more beautiful, than any creation myth we could have dreamt up.
Alice Roberts is Professor of Public Engagement in Science at the University of Birmingham, and one of the new generation of writers and TV presenters who in the UK fill much the same role as Bill Nye and Neil deGrassie Tyson in the US. She is by training a doctor and anatomist, and much of her own research has involved forensic examination of pre-human hominin skeletons, the coldest of “cold cases”. This background shows up clearly in her detailed descriptions of your developing structures, and she shares with us her emotions about coming face-to-face (in one case literally) with her own anatomy, as when, after x-ray tomography, she was given a replica of her own skull.
The unlikeliness is not just the obvious unlikeliness of your two particular parents meeting, of that one egg becoming fertilised, and of that one sperm out of the enormous number available on being successful. Nor even of the improbability of your parents in turn having come into existence, and so on. Behind all this, and multiplying all those improbabilities, is the meandering history of our evolution:
The more I delve into the structure and workings of the human body, the more I realise what a cobbled-together hodge-podge of bits and pieces this thing we inhabit really is. It is brilliant, but it is also flawed. Our evolutionary history is woven into our embryological development and even adult anatomy in surprising ways; many of our body’s flaws can only understood in an evolutionary context.
We start with a history of ideas, and here it struck me as remarkable how long it took for it to be generally recognised that both parents contribute to the form of their offspring, despite the obvious evidence from physical resemblances. Leeuwenhoek with his microscope first observing sperm, the much later discovery of the mammalian ovum, a comical (in hindsight) controversy between “spermists” and “ovists”, the puzzle, insoluble even in principle until the advent of genetics, of how both parents could contribute to what we now call the information content of their offspring, and the further conundrum, unsolved until DNA was identified as the genetic material, of the material means by which they did so.
Most of the book is concerned with the complex process that leads from first release of the ovum, through fertilisation, implantation, and the many subsequent stages of development, through to birth. This story is inextricably intertwined with the story of your evolution, and I can only pick out a few of the most salient points from a wealth of fascinating detail.
There are, of course, vestigial or discarded organs. In your second week of development, when you were not much more than a couple of layers of cells, you generated a yolk sac, homologous with the yolk sac of fish, amphibians, reptiles, and even those mammals (the platypus and the spiny anteater) that lay eggs. The difference is that in these the yolk sac is filled with the nourishment that will sustain the growing animal until its birth, whereas in placental mammals like us, it has been without function for the past 90 million years or so. Nonetheless, the recipe for making it has never been deleted from your assembly instructions.
At an early stage, it is very difficult to distinguish the embryo of a mammal (that includes you, of course) from that of a fish; a little later it is still difficult to distinguish it from a reptile or a bird, and different mammalian embryos continue to resemble each other for even longer. For a while, it was suggested that this is because you were retracing your evolutionary history, but we now know that this idea is based on a mistaken model of evolution. You are not more highly evolved, than, say, a chicken; you have just evolved in a different direction. The earliest stages of development are shared with fish, later stages with reptiles and birds, and later stages yet only with mammals and eventually only with our fellow apes. Thus we do not, strictly speaking, recapitulate our evolution from a fish, nor should we, since the present-day fish is as remote as you are from your last common ancestor with a halibut, but we do recapitulate shared development until the parting of the ways. The new science of “evo-devo” is now beginning to take this story down to the most fundamental level, identifying the molecular basis for the parts of the construction plan that you share with a fish, and the parts, activated later, that you do not.
The cartilage base of human skull resembles that of other mammals. It is only later, when this is being transformed to bone, that it acquires its specifically human form, with the enlarged dome required to house the brain towering above the rest of the head.
Working down from the head takes us to the larynx, and the unanswered question of the origin of human speech. Here the problem is that the really important working parts – the larynx itself, its associated muscles, and, above all, the tongue – are soft tissues and leave no trace in the fossil record. The position of the larynx lower in the throat, compared with other mammals, may be no more than an accidental consequence of the way our oversized brainboxes sit on top of our spinal column.
The origin of the larynx leads us to the most striking embryological evidence for evolution, namely the direct resemblance between the branchial (gill) bars of fish, and the related structures found, early in development, in terrestrial vertebrates. Then comparative embryology allows us to map our own organs against their fishy counterparts, and to explain some of the more absurd features of our own anatomy.
Our fishy origins are clearest early in development. By week four, the bundle of cells on its way to becoming you has separated into three separate layers, a tube within a tube within a tube. On the outside, ectoderm, which will give rise to your skin; on the inside, endoderm, which will give rise to your digestive tract, from one end to the other, and in between mesoderm, giving rise to a variety of structures. By week five, we can see what will become the backbone, the eye, and the branchial bars in the neck. Each branchial bar has ectoderm on the outside, endoderm inside, and in between a mixture of cells, some from mesoderm and some from neural crest. This in-between layer will develop into a cartilage bar and muscles, and each bar will develop an artery and a nerve.
Land animals and fish have shared much the same developmental instruction manual until this point, but now they begin to diverge. In fish, the branchial arteries accept blood directly from the heart, and the cartilage forms the gill arches. In land animals, development is far more complex. One set of gill muscles becomes larynx muscles, and a nerve that leads to it runs down into the chest, before making its way back up to the top of the throat. Why so? Because the blood vessels that, in fish, run directly between the heart and the gills have become, in land animals, the aorta and main arteries leading from it. And as a consequence, the recurrent laryngeal nerve, as it is called, is trapped beneath the aortic arch when the heart moves downwards, as it does in land animals but not in fishes, and forced to take this convoluted path. Bad design, but an unavoidable consequence of evolutionary history. A creationist with whom I once discussed this suggested that this really was a good design, because it protects the nerve from damage. Tell that to a giraffe.
The first branchial arch gives rise to bones that are part of the jaw joint in reptiles, but in mammals have shifted and shrunk and become two of the bones of the inner ear. And yes, there is an intermediate form, an early mammal with two jaw joints, the outer one thus being made free to move closer to the ear to improve resonance, and, ultimately, to detach itself. Gill flap muscles in the fish end up as face muscles in primates including us, and so on. The cleft between the first and second branchial arch gives rise, in us, to our ears, and to the tubes that connect the middle ear to the throat, thus enabling pressure to equalise.
Descending to the molecular level, these developments are orchestrated by a set of control genes, prominent among them the so-called “homeobox” or Hoxgenes, first discovered in fruit flies, where they regulate the formation of the segments of head, thorax, and abdomen. Similar genes are found in every segmented animal, including us (if you don’t think you’re segmented, think of your backbone and ribs). This arrangement must be very ancient, since your last common ancestor with a fruit fly was some 800,000,000 years ago, but has undergone elaboration. The fruitfly has 8 Hox genes, lined up in a row, that come into play one after the other. In the lancelet, this has been expanded to 14. At some stage between the lancelet and jawed fishes, the entire genome seems to have doubled and redoubled, so that you have four sets of Hox genes, each on a different chromosome.
Some aspects of this regulatory system are much more flexible than others. All land vertebrates have a spine with the same basic sections: neck, chest, lower back, sacrum, and tail. All mammals have just seven neck vertebrae, whereas the number of tail vertebrae is highly variable, being up to 49 in one species of porpoise, which flexes its tail to swim, while our tail, or coccyx, has only 3 to 5 fused together. This tail can be considered as a vestigial organ, since it is a mere relic of that sported by our monkey-like ancestors, but like many so-called vestigial organs it continues to earn its keep, in this case by acting as an anchor for muscles. Our lower backs have one more vertebra then our chimp cousins, and are less securely held in place, developments thought to be related to our habitual walking on two feet
Relevant to Professor Roberts’ own anatomical interests, although less directly so to the question of embryological development, is the detailed history of our limbs. This indicates us to have been truly bipedal as long ago as 3.2 million years ago (Lucy), while long legs at 1.5 million years ago (Narikotome boy) suggest adaptation for running. In popular imagination, we learned to stand upright as we evolved away from knuckle-walking ancestors, but the reverse may be the case. Monkeys, like us, have feet far harder and less flexible than those of modern non-human apes, and Prof Roberts speculates that our ancestors were tree walkers. If so, it is the apes, with their prehensile toes, rather than us, who have diverged from the form of our common ancestor.
But once we started walking on the ground, that change in behaviour, which could occur within a group in a single generation, would have suddenly generated a new set of selection pressures in favour of long distance walking and running. This is an activity for which we are superbly adapted, even though only a few groups, such as the Tarahumara in Mexico, still regularly practice it.
The final Chapter reviews our present understanding, and considers our place in nature. Development is controlled, more or less, by DNA, including control genes as well as directly expressed genes. It is not, as Haeckel thought, a true recapitulation, but shows clear echoes of earlier stages – segments, gills, fish hearts, the lancelet brain. Our developmental biology is, to use one of Prof Roberts’ many memorable metaphors, a palimpsest.
Similar environmental pressures can give rise to similar adaptations, so that the mammalian ear with its three tiny bones has evolved at least four times in different lineages, while, as hinted above, different ways of moving around including bipedalism may have arisen more than once among our ancestors and their close cousins. But nonetheless, evolution remains unpredictable, if only because changes in the environment are unpredictable. One such change was that triggered by the asteroid that did for the (non-avian) dinosaurs. Selection acts without foresight, and without that asteroid, we would not have had humans (for what it’s worth, my own view is that we would have had the intelligent descendants of the velociraptors instead).
Evolution takes place in context, and that context, for a species capable of learning from each other, includes a technology. An innovation in toolmaking could have spread through a group of our ancestors in a single generation, triggering a new set of selection pressures that moulded their hands and bodies to a new set of tasks. We speak of the survival of the fittest, but fitness here refers to the cultural, as well as the natural, environment. And we are more influenced in our lives, and our evolution, by our own culture and its artefacts than any other species.
The book concludes with reflections on our similarities (profound) and differences (striking, yet perhaps more quantitative than qualitative) from other species, our contingent and transitory nature, and our uniqueness both as species and, returning to the starting point, individuals.
There are numerous drawings (Prof Roberts is an award-winning artist), and an extensive bibliography.
A few detailed comments. Prof Roberts shows, early on, a series of drawings copied from Haeckel. Connoisseurs of creationism will recognise this as a deliberate provocation, since creationist writers repeatedly point to alleged shortcomings in these, as reason to ignore the whole of developmental science. Lancelets are shown as sister group to vertebrates; in fact, we are closer to tunicates (the subphylum that includes sea squirts) than we are to lancelets, although tunicates only acquired their sessile habit after we and they had gone our separate ways (Prof Roberts tells me that this will be corrected in later editions. I occasionally found the layout of diagrams and their explanations rather awkward. This may be an inherent limitation of the e-book format that I was using.
Disclosure: this review is of the first Kindle edition, personal purchase.
These reviews first appeared here, on 3 Quarks Daily
If there really were lots of people, not just Noah’s family, and they really were spread out over Africa, and if they really were making tools from some 2.6 million years before present, and if they were profligate throwaways when it came to flint flakes, then a little arithmetic shows that there ought to be trillions (yes, millions of millions) of discarded tool bits all over Africa. And there are.
Earlier, I blogged about time as interval at Siccar Point, and time as process where the lavas of the Giants Causeway were weathered between outflows. Now (see below, reblogged from Naturalis Historia) I can add time as the accumulation of junk. Time shallow by geological standards, but very deep indeed compared with all of human history, or with the imaginings of the author(s) of Genesis. And I don’t think even Ken Ham can talk his way out of this one.
And this week sees the resolution of another paradox: the oldest tools known date to some 2.6 million years before present (Mybp), but the oldest clearly hominin remains were at 2.4 Mybp. So do we have to infer that australopithecines made tools? Not necessarily, since (see here, and references therein) we now have a decidedly hominin-looking jaw at 2.8 Mybp.
There may be other implications for our ancestry. Jaw bones are the best preserved of all skeletal remains, but on their own they tell us little about what most interests us – the size of the brain case. However, where one fragment was found there may be others, and we can only await further developments.
Trillions of stone artifacts cover the surface of the African continent. The product of the manufacturing of stone tools by hunters and gathers over long periods of time, these stone artifacts literally carpet the ground in some places in Egypt and Libya.
Just how much Stone-Age produced rock is strewn across the African continent?
Imagine a volume of rock equivalent to 42-84 million Great Pyramids of Giza.
The “million” isn’t a typo. That number sounds absolutely fantastic, doesn’t it? Let’s take a look at how these numbers were derived.
The results of a study just published (see references below) shows how incredibly dense stone artifacts can be in some places in Africa. Working in a remote location in southern Libya, researchers took surveys from hundreds of one or two-meter square plots. From the tens of thousands of artifacts found in them, they estimated a minimum density of 250,000 stone artifacts…
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The Holyrood Dinosaur, John Mason MSP, has pooped again. Last month he told us that science can’t disprove the theory that the Earth was created in six days. He’s quite right, of course; according to his chosen standards, no one can ever disprove anything. This month, however, he is busy telling us what is or is not important for schools to teach. His exact words, according to the Sunday Herald, were
… you can argue science is all about theories, but there is enough to teach in science without having to go into how old the earth might or might not be.
Good idea. Let’s just take out of the science syllabus everything that requires having to go into how old the Earth might or might not be. Goodbye to:
Everything to do with the Big Bang, the initial formation of hydrogen and helium, the formation of gas clouds, gravitational collapse, and the conversion of hydrogen to helium within stars
Red giants, supernovas, and the formation of the heavy elements (“heavy” in this context means anything heavier than helium)
The formation of the Sun, then the Earth, then the Moon, in that order (sorry, Genesis 1:1 – 18), from the collapsing and sorting of the material in the planetary nebula
Radioactive dating, and how we know the radiometric clock runs true
The whole of geology, including plate tectonics, mountain forming, the time needed to form and erode sediments. And while we’re at it, the whole of geography, geochemistry, mineralogy, and the science of looking for fossil fuel deposits and other useful materials, like building stones and metal ore
The entire fossil record. After all, it is full of missing links, and the more fossils you find, the more missing links there must be in between them
Human palaeontology and archaeology. These tell us that our ancestors split off from the ancestors of other kinds of ape some 5 million years ago, and that the Egyptians were in the middle of building the Great Pyramid when Noah’s Flood is supposed to have happened (funny that the work doesn’t seem to have been interrupted)
Anything whatsoever to do with ev*l*t**n. After all, ev*l*t**n takes a very long time, and we can’t prove that there was so much time available because we can’t prove that the Earth was not made in six days.
Dino poop. Together with the formation of petrified wood, coal, oil, and natural gas (did I mention them already?), the much-misdescribed mineralised blood vessels of dinosaurs, all other minerals formed by displacement or metamorphosis, and anything else that takes a really long time
So what should we teach instead? Luckily, John Mason has already given us the answer:
… some people believe that God created the world in six days, some people believe that God created the world over a longer period of time and some people believe that the world came about without anyone creating it; considers that none of these positions can be proved or disproved by science and all are valid beliefs for people to hold, and further considers that children in Scotland’s schools should be aware of all of these different belief systems.
So this is what we should make children in Scotland’s schools aware of, in the time freed up by the above deletions.
Analysing a dinosaur’s poop gives valuable information about its diet. And in the case of the Holyrood Dinosaur, confirmation that the diet is dangerously lacking in science, logic, common-sense, or anything else even vaguely connected with reality.
Truth to Tell contains the usual attack on Haeckel, with the usual claim that this invalidates all the developmental evidence we now have for evolution, some 130 years later. As Diogenes surmised (see his comments on the earlier post), this is accompanied by a completely meaningless image meant to represent a human foetus. The accompanying text makes clear the real agenda: “A human embryo starts as a human, ends as a human, and is a human the entire time.” The figure (click for full scale view), and accompanying text, speaks for itself:
The reference to human footprints in coal, pp l03 – 104, doesn’t even get the dates of the Carboniferous right:
“As an example, according to evolutionists, the coal in the Upper Carboniferous layer is supposed to be 250 million years old. Humans did not evolve, according to this theory, until about 3 million years ago. Yet we have found human footprints in coal layers that are supposed to be 250 million years old.”
As Diogenes reminds us, the Carboniferous ended 299 million years ago. The number 250 million, the claim that the impressions are human footprints, and the description of 250 million years ago as Carboniferous, probably come via John C. Whitcomb and Henry Morris, The Genesis Flood, p. 172. The footprints, if such they be, were described in a 1940 Scientific American article, which concluded, however, that they were probably carvings, or, if not, footprints of some as yet unrecognized species, see here for more details. However, that article did contain the rhetorical hypothetical
“If man, or even his ape ancestor’s early mammalian ancestor, existed as far back as the Carboniferous Period in any shape, then the whole science of geology is so completely wrong that all the geologists will resign their jobs and take up truck driving.”
Of course, that was meant to be a reductio ad absurdum, but Creationists have no sense of irony, and this is the kind of thing they really jump on. Indeed, Apologetics Press, publishers of the books in question, quote-mines the article in a separate posting here, with fanciful chalked in foot shapes.
Truth be Told continues:
“How could the coal layers be 250 million years old, if the humans who made tracks in them did not evolve until 247 million years after coal formed? The truth is, neither humans nor coal are millions of years old. After the Flood, Noah or his descendants could have left their footprints in the coal while it was just beginning to form a few thousand years ago. In summary, coal forms when plants are buried very quickly.The upright trees in coal prove this [there are other references to polystrate fossils, of course.]Scientists are now able to form coal in the laboratory in only a few months, so we know it does not take millions of years to form. Furthermore, things like human footprints show that the coal is not millions of years old.”
No references anywhere in the book, but there is a true/false question in the Chapter Review, “Human footprints have been found in coal that evolutionists date to be 250 million years old.” Guess what the answer is supposed to be.
A detailed analysis of all the errors would require a book as long as the original, so I’ll leave it there.
My friends in Scotland will know about how a local Church of Christ sect, with the help of missionaries from the US, successfully infiltrated a Scottish state non-denominational primary school, were only properly scrutinised (after 8 years of activity) when the school chaplain (a sect member) gave the children two fundamentalist Young earth creationist books to take home, and how the sect has now been barred from that school and the two head teachers who made the mistake of trusting them redeployed.
My American friends will be surprised that a school should have a chaplain, let alone at the rest of these extraordinary goings on, about which I shall have much more to say later. I have read the books given out, and prepared a full report on them, which I attach here.
I had previously, as a backgrounder, sent it to some of the parents, to the school itself, and to the local authority that controls the school, before the local authority education officer met parents to discuss the situation. The immediate problem has been dealt with, but I would like to know what steps the school and the Council plan to take to undo the educational damage inflicted by this.
The books are worse than I could have imagined. A mixture of Morris’s The Genesis Flood, Wells’s Icons of Evolution, and the most bizarre imaginings of Ken Ham‘s Creation Museum, all packaged to look like authoritative school books; the more advanced one even had chapter end review quizzes. I would like to know what steps the school, and the local authority that controls it, plan to take to undo the educational damage inflicted by this.
Anyway, It has occurred to me that I must be one of the few people in the world to have actually submitted himself to the tedium of reading these books from cove to cover, so I thought I’d append my report for those interested: http://www.apologeticspress.org/store/Product.aspx?pid=54 Truth be Told – and http://www.apologeticspress.org/store/Product.aspx?pid=448 How do we Know God is Real? For these books to be handed out by a school was a betrayal of trust. Their content is contrary to the whole of present-day science, and to the principles and requirements of guidance from the Scottish Department of Education, and the Curriculum for Excellence. Their arguments are a re-hash of a long-refuted “creation science”, a 20th century heresy that has its roots in Henry Morris’s Genesis Flood, and in Seventh Day Adventism, rather than in mainstream Christianity. They are produced by Apologetics Press, the publishing arm of a group of exclusive US sects calling themselves “Churches of Christ”, who “shun” ex-members (http://www.dailyrecord.co.uk/news/scottish-news/mum-tells-how-cult-organisation-2261326) and reject the whole of modern science in favour of their own kind of biblical literalism.
The books are professionally produced, and Truth be Told in particular is formatted in the same way as a real textbook, complete with chapter headings and subheadings, end-of-chapter reviews, quizzes and discussion topics. A diligent pupil receiving these books, as the children at Kirktonholme did, with the blessings of the school, will conclude that the whole of modern cosmology, geology, and biology is fundamentally mistaken, and that those who promulgate it, including their own science teachers, all university biology departments, and all the world’s leading scientific societies, are lying.One particularly nasty feature is that established science is repeatedly misrepresented so as to make it look absurd, and the evidence for it is repeatedly suppressed or, worse, incorrectly described so as to make it seem unconvincing. This is most obviously true in the chapters regarding the age of the earth, the fossil record, and evolution.
The authors have no scientific qualifications. Kyle Butt graduated from a private Churches of Christ university, and his degrees are in Bible and Communications. Eric Lyons’s degrees, from the same university, are in Bible, History, and Ministry.
How do we Know misdescribes the Big Bang as disorderly (H 14) , asserts (H 18 – 39) that because organisms are complex, each species must have been individually designed, and claims (H 40 – 41) that if evolution is true, dogs could give birth to animals that are half-dog and half-cat.
There are also other claims, not strictly scientific, that are repugnant in a pluralist society, such as, that “Only a belief in God can help people understand what actions are truly right and truly wrong.” (H 51); that those who deny the existence of God are “like those people who deny that Americans have ever landed on the moon.” (H 54), that “when a person properly looks at all the evidence with an open mind and honest art, he cannot be an atheist.” (H 55; emphasis in original).
Truth be Told is the worst kind of creationist anti-science, made to look like a real textbook, with chapter end quizzes (sample: Briefly explain why the trilobite is evidence of Creation), claims of fossilised trilobites inside human footprints, that evolutionists are liars who try unsuccessfully to wriggle out of the Second Law, that radiometric dating depends on flawed assumptions, and other long-exploded lies. It says that evolutionists (that would include their own science teachers at school and university) are dishonestly refusing to admit the truth, that the earth is 6,000 years old, that Noah’s flood explains the Grand Canyon, and that people used dinosaurs as beasts of burden. All this presented as real science in a textbook-like format.
Within the first five pages of Truth be Told, I found nine major errors of scientific fact or logic. Even a brief summary of major errors runs to four pages, which I include here for those interested in the detailed arguments. Some of the highlights are:
Ch 1, Origin of the universe, claims that because Big Bangs are not taking place today, the idea is not amenable to scientific testing. False; the Big Bang is accepted because it quantitatively explains Hubble’s Law, the relative abundance of the light elements and their isotopes, the Cosmic Microwave Background and its fluctuations.
Ch 2, Origin of life, describes the unsolved problem of the origin of life as a weakness in the concept of biological evolution. Not so, any more than the unsolved problem of the origin of language is a weakness in the concept of language evolution.
Ch 5, Geology in the fossil record; geological strata are said to be the result of Noah’s flood, and the rapidity of change in special situations, specifically Mount St Helens, is said to argue against the gradualness of average change in general.
Ch 6, The age of the Earth; claims that radiometric decay rates could have been different in the past, although it has been known since 1928 that they could not have, since if they had been all the laws of physics and chemistry, responsible for the formation of rocks, would also have been different.
Ch 7, Dinosaurs and man, says that humans and dinosaurs coexisted, and that there were dinosaurs on Noah’s Ark. It also claims that assorted rock art represents dinosaurs, speculates that humans could have used dinosaurs as beasts of burden, and even has pictures of dinosaurs pulling carts.
Ch 8, Arguing against evolution, misrepresents the facts regarding embryo development, and, of course, the peppered moth story.
Ch 9, The origin of humans, concentrates on errors from many decades ago, and dismisses intermediate forms such as Homo habilis because they are not fully human (of course they are not. That’s the whole point)
Ch 10, Creation Scientists, is shameless. It lists Louis Pasteur (died 1895) and Sir Isaac Newton (died 1727), and confuses belief in God with belief in the kind of creationism described here. In addition, the book repeatedly accuses evolutionists (remember that this includes the science teachers they will be meeting later, as well as virtually all research scientists) of deliberate disregard and distortion of the evidence, and refusal to admit the truth.
In more tedious detail [you don’t really need to read this unless you want to]:
Ch 1: that the Big Bank was an explosion, sending lumps of matter shooting through space (false; it was a highly orderly event, and lumps of matter only condensed out much later), that acceptance of the Big Bang is of relevance to the acceptance of biological evolution (they are completely different topics), that because Big Bangs are not taking place today, the idea is not amenable to scientific testing(false; the Big Bang is accepted because it quantitatively explains Hubble’s Law, the relative abundance of the light elements and their isotopes, the Cosmic Microwave Background and its fluctuations), and that that a scientific law is “a principle in nature that is true in every observable case”, that (referring presumably the situation existing shortly after the Big Bang), “a tiny ball of matter is not an adequate cause” for our enormous universe (false; this claim neglects the effects of almost 14 billion years of expansion). The chapter also miss describes the use of the terms “law” and “theory” in science, and invokes an imaginary Law of Cause and Effect, which in reality is routinely violated by events at the quantum level, including according to some current thinking the Big Bang itself.
Ch 1 also incorrectly states that the Big Bang theory violates the First and Second Laws of thermodynamics. False; the First Law is not violated because the positive energy of the contents of the universe is exactly balanced by its negative gravitational energy, and the Big Bang was a highly orderly event, not disorderly as stated here. All of this is clearly laid out in many popular books on the subject. Most seriously, T 11 incorrectly invokes the Second Law as saying that the spontaneous pattern formation required by evolution could not occur. In reality, the spontaneous formation of new patterns in far from equilibrium systems, of which he Earth-Sun-Space system is an example, has been known for many decades, and was the subject of Ilya Prigogine’s 1977 Nobel Prize.
T13 on describes the suitability of the Earth to life as clear evidence of providence. False; examining two of the examples given, the ozone layer is the inevitable result of the Sun’s UV light, and the Earth’s magnetic field is the inevitable result of its molten core, which in turn is the inevitable result of its composition and mode of formation. Subsequent pages point out ways in which the World is just right for us; but of course it is, since it is the World that we have evolved in.
Ch 2 describes the unsolved problem of the origin of life as a weakness in the concept of biological evolution. Not so, any more than the unsolved problem of the origin of language is a weakness in the concept of language evolution. This chapter also completely misdescribes conditions on the early Earth, current thinking on the origins of life, and the very restricted role now claimed for the Urey-Miller experiment. The claim that the work of Redi and Pasteur, refuting 18th-century theories of spontaneous generation, has any relevance to what could have happened over tens of millions of years on the early Earth is ridiculous.
Ch 3 misdescribes evolution, chooses Darwin’s finches as an example but ignores extensive recent studies, and claims that mutations cannot generate new information on the grounds that they merely rearrange existing material (this is like saying that an author does not generate new information, because he is merely rearranging existing words). It ignores well established cases of adaptation, such as (within humans) lactose tolerance in pastoral peoples, and resistance to local diseases.
Ch 4 asserts that “Design demands a designer” (this is simply asserting what it claims to prove), and points to good design within the human body while completely neglecting the cases of bad design (such as hernias, choking, the blind spot in the eye, along with many others) that can only be understood as evolutionary relics. Like so much of the creationist literature, the book at this point misquotes Darwin on the subject of the eye.
Ch 5, on the geological record, is a travesty. Geological strata are said to be the result of Noah’s flood. The fact that fossil tree trunks rise up through several layers of later sediment is said to refute the claim that these sediments accumulated over millions of years. The complexity of the trilobite eye is said to refute the plain fact that from the bottom up (i.e., according to three centuries of geology, but not according to this book, from older sediments onwards) the totality of life has become more complex and diverse. We have the usual (for the creationist literature) misdescription of uniformitarianism, and the claim that the rapidity of change in special situations, specifically Mount St Helens, argues against the gradualness of change on average.
Ch 6, the age of the earth, repeats the usual nonsense about radiometric dating depending on doubtful assumptions. In reality, the mineralogical assumptions made in the early work have been bypassed since the 1940s by the use of isochron dating techniques, while the “assumption” that decay rates have remained constant has been known, since George Gamow’s work in 1928, to be a necessary consequence of the fact that more fundamental quantities, such as the speed of light and the charge on the electron, have remained constant. If this were not so, we would not have had rocks laid down according to the laws of chemistry and physics in the first place.
At this point, the specific Young Earth agenda comes into its own. If tree ring dating places a piece of wood at 10,000 years old, this book claims that this is simply because it was created with 4000 years worth of tree rings inside it. Here we also meet the first flat-out piece of fiction. The book says that there are human footprints in coal layers dated at 250 million years old.
Next come the usual and long refuted creationist arguments for a young Earth. The Earth’s magnetic field is decaying. Indeed it is (and we know that it has decayed and even changed direction many times in the past). The book then says that therefore, the Earth a few thousand years ago would have been so hot it would have cracked. This is nonsense on so many levels that I hardly know where to start. It is claimed that if the universe were billions, or even millions, of years old, then all the hydrogen would long since have been changed into helium. Again this is nonsense. We know how fast hydrogen is being converted into helium in the Sun, from how bright it is, and this fits well with the established age for the solar system of a little over 4.5 billion years. There is a ludicrous argument from population statistics, which effectively assumes a rate of growth over evolutionary time comparable with that only made possible since the development of agriculture.
At this point, the lies become embarrassing. T 109 says that “archaeologists have documented time and again that the period between the time of Abraham and the time of Jesus was about 2000 years. Who do not believe in God… admit that this is true.” In reality, there is no archaeological evidence for Abraham.
Ch 7, Dinosaurs and man, says that it “simply is not true” that dinosaurs lived millions of years before humans, and that “there is much evidence which shows that humans, dinosaurs, and other extinct animals lived together only a few thousand years ago”. Abstract and fanciful monsters found in ancient art are described as evidence for dinosaurs. Herodotus’ description of remains of flying snakes resembling bats is taken as evidence for him having seen pterosaurs, even though pterosaurs are not in the least bit bat-like. T 121 misdescribes collagen residues preserved in one tyrannosaur fossil by tight binding to bone as “soft issue”.
T 120 and T 121 accuse science textbooks of lying. T 120: “The reason you do not see it [the evidence that humans lived alongside dinosaurs] in your school science books is because it stands opposed to evolution…. When we look at the evidence, we can see the truth.” T 121: “Evolutionary scientists should admit… that dinosaur bones are not millions of years old…. An honest person who found soft issue in a dinosaur fossil would admit that the fossil could not be millions of years old.”
The rest of this chapter suggests that, by analogy with elephants and orcas, humans might have tamed dinosaurs, and shows (T 125, 132) humans interacting with dinosaurs and using them as beasts of burden. We are told that there were dinosaurs on the Ark, and there is discussion of how they could have been fitted in. Dinosaur graveyards are attributed to dinosaurs being drowned in Noah’s Flood.
Ch 8, Evolution is not a proven fact, starts off as is customary in the creationist literature with an attack on Haeckel’s drawings, ignoring everything that has been learnt about development since. It misdraws the human embryo as having the shape of a fully formed human, confuses gill slits with gill arches, and suppresses such well-known facts as the presence of fur and tails on human embryos at around six months. Next (T 138 – 139) we have the peppered moth story, complete with accusations that the camouflage story was false, and that “even though many of the writers and science have book publishers knew was false, they used it anyway” [emphasis in original].
By chance, I wrote at length about this a few weeks ago (http://www.3quarksdaily.com/3quarksdaily/2013/08/creationism-as-conspiracy-theory-the-case-of-the-peppered-moth.html). There was no fraud. There were inadequacies in the original experiments. These were repeated, and the results confirmed and placed on a sound footing. That is how science works.
The story of horse evolution is misrepresented on the basis of a quote mined from 1953, while that of whale evolution incorrectly asserts that the evolutionary account is based on only a few bones, and suppresses the fact that we have a complete sequence of over 18 separate stages connecting whales with their terrestrial ancestors. We have confusion between analogy and homology, and misdescription of the evidence from vestigial organs. The chapter ends with the claim that the ability of vestigial organs to perform a new function is evidence against evolution. On the contrary, it is evidence for what is known as exaptation, a powerful evolutionary mechanism.
Ch 9, Did humans evolve? Suppresses the evidence for some 20 species more or less intermediate between us and our common ancestor with chimpanzees, makes great play with frauds and errors long since disposed of, misdescribes Homo habilis as merely an ape and therefore irrelevant in human evolution (the opposite is the case; its position on the borderline between Australopithecus and Homo is evidence that the continuity that creationists deny).
Ch 10, Creation Scientists, is shameless. It lists Louis Pasteur (died 1895) and Sir Isaac Newton (died 1727), and confuses belief in God with belief in the kind of creationism described here.
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[Disclosure: World Scientific published my own first non-technical book, From Stars to Stalagmites, in 2012.]
Update July 23: this book has been absent for a week from the WSPC web site. I am told that the matter is under consideration by WSPC management. In the circumstances, I have taken down my posts on the subject, and hope not to have to reinstate them.
Update July 29: World Scientific asked me for a full review of the book. I have sent it to them, with a cover note saying that I hope never to have occasion to publish it. All that fine invective, never to see the light of day! But fair’s fair.
Update Sept 27; It’s back on the menu. Too puerile to require rebuttal, too insignificant to be worth publicising by protest. So I’ll leave it at that, and simply bear in mind that World Scientific’s imprimatur is now worthless.