Category Archives: Religion

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] OmarShahid.co.uk: “Muslim leaders urge Islamic community to rethink evolution theory” by Omar Shahid

3] interacademies.net: IAP on the Teaching of Evolution

 

The Little Puddlian Philosophical Society and the Fine Tuning Argument

Puddle theory, according to Wikipedia, is “a term coined by Douglas Adams to satirize arguments that the universe is made for man. As stated in Adams’s book The Salmon of Doubt:

“imagine a puddle waking up one morning and thinking, ‘This is an interesting world I find myself in, an interesting hole I find myself in, fits me rather neatly, doesn’t it? In fact, it fits me staggeringly well, must have been made to have me in it!’ This is such a powerful idea that as the sun rises in the sky and the air heats up and as, gradually, the puddle gets smaller and smaller, it’s still frantically hanging on to the notion that everything’s going to be all right, because this World was meant to have him in it, was built to have him in it; so the moment he disappears catches him rather by surprise. I think this may be something we need to be on the watch out for.”

I yield to no one in my admiration for Douglas Adams, and admire here in particular his reminder that our place in the Universe may really be rather precarious. However, on this occasion he had been anticipated. Read the rest of this entry

Sahelanthropus, evolution, and the word “theory”; what Mike Pence really said

The now Vice-President of the United States stands accused of having said that evolution is “just a theory”; see here and here. No he did not say that. What he did say (full text below, with notes) was far, far worse. Much more detailed and much more dangerous.

L: Pence being sworn in as a member of the House Education and Workforce Committee (CNN)

After reminding us that he was trained in law and history, he mangles the historical facts and legal significance of a key court case (the Scopes trial).

By quotemining a secondary source,* which he treats as if primary, he twists the then-recent discovery of Sahelanthropus into an argument against the underlying science. It is changeable, he argues, therefore it is uncertain.

He justifies this manoeuvre by harping on the ambiguous word “theory”, and making a falsely rigid distinction between theory and fact.

Sahelanthropus tchadensis SmithsonianR: Sahelanthropus tchadensis, photo from Smithsonian Human Origins website

And worst of all, he asks his colleagues to “demand [emphasis added] that educators around America teach evolution not as fact, but as theory”. The proponent, when it suits him, of small Government wants Washington to tell teachers how to teach.

Pence has been accused of stupidity because of the factual and logical errors contained in his speech. On the contrary, Read the rest of this entry

Billy Sunday, Creationism, and the Klan connection

There is nothing new about the alliance between American evangelical Christianity and white supremacism, although the party alignment of this alliance has changed over the years. And one of the pleasures of blogging is how one comes across interesting facts, and interesting people. My email today illustrates both these points:

Research query: Billy Sunday

Hello Paul Braterman,

By way of introduction I am the retired bass trombonist of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and retired Professor of Trombone at Arizona State University. I am at work on a book for University of Illinois Press about Homer Rodeheaver, the trombone-playing song leader for Billy Sunday in the first third of the 20th century.

A research thread that is currently occupying my interest is the role the Ku Klux Klan played in Billy Sunday meetings.
I came across your blog post: https://paulbraterman.wordpress.com/tag/billy-sunday/ [the link is to my post, The Scopes “Monkey trial”, Part 2: Evidence, Confrontation, Resolution, Consequences]

In the paragraph below the image of Sunday preaching by George Bellows, you write “There also was a Klan night.”

The image referred to: Billy Sunday portrait by George Bellows, Metropolitan Magazine 1915, via Wikipedia. Click to enlarge (it’s worth it)

I am aware of a number of occasions when Klan members- both hooded and Read the rest of this entry

Removing Church nominees from Education Committees: Good news from Petitions Committee

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The story so far: Our petition attracted over 700 signatures, some notable, and Spencer Fildes and I were invited to give evidence on it before the Public Petitions Committee last November (shown above; see here for more).  After submitting us to attentive but not unfriendly cross-examination, the Committee decided to write to a number of interested parties, whose submissions you will find on the petition website, together  with my own response. It met again last Thursday, to consider what action to take, and the official report  is now available here under Continued Petitions, and reproduced below for completeness.

Now read on: We had hoped that at this point they would decide to forward the matter to the Education and Skills Committee, going down much the same road as a related petition did three years ago. What happened, however, was potentially far more favourable to our case. It is relevant that the Convener is Johann Lamont, a very senior, independent-minded, and able parliamentarian, who has said of herself “I have been a committee convener, proud of building consensus where possible, to test legislation and to challenge the government of the day.” Read the rest of this entry

Socrates: ancient Humanist? (reblogged from Footnotes to Plato)

If you want to know more about Socrates, or Humanism, or anything else that really matters, this is for you.

And the horns of Euthyphro’s Dilemma, described here, are as sharp as ever. This morning, February 2nd, a committee of the Scottish Parliament is considering the Scottish Secular Society petition for the removal of the church representatives who sit, immune from electoral scrutiny, on Scottish Local Education Authority Committees. Defenders of the status quo argue that they have an important role to play in transmitting Christian values. The petition (which I helped write) argues that if a value is specifically Christian, it will not necessarily be shared by the non-Christians who now form a majority among young Scots, while if it is not specifically Christian, we do not need a church representative to instruct us in it. The derivation from Euthyphro is obvious.

More on the petition on this blog and on the Parliamentary website. Updates as available. Massimo Pigliucci’s essay, below, speaks for itself, and I am flattered that he approves the use that the petition made of Socrates’ argument.

Footnotes to Plato

MNR-Socrate Socrates, Roman National Museum, photo by the Author

As part of my ongoing occasional series aiming at bringing some of my own technical papers to the attention of a wider public (after all, what the hell is the point of doing scholarship if it only benefits other scholars?), below I reprint a paper I recently published in The Human Prospect. It inquires on the possibility of interpreting Socrates as a proto-Humanist of sorts, and it therefore includes a discussion of Humanism as a philosophy of life, as well its likely stemming from the ancient Greco-Roman tradition of virtue ethics (via the mediation of the Renaissance Humanists, which were informed by, and yet were reacting against, medieval Christianity).

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Liberty’s Falwell to lead task force on US Higher Ed

Answers in Genesis recommends Liberty University, of which Jerry Falwell is president, because

One of the unique features of Liberty is its strong stance on the literal creation account in Genesis. Every Liberty student is required to take a course called “History of Life.” The faculty of the Center for Creation Studies, led by Dr. David DeWitt, teaches this course. The arguments for biblical creation are drawn from science, religion, history, and philosophy.

refutingevolutionThe course textbooks, as Dr DeWitt describes them on the Creation Ministries International website, are Refuting Evolution by Jonathan Sarfati, and The Creation Answers Book (Sarfati et al), which tells you among other things, how all the animals fit into the Ark and why radiometric dating is unreliable.

Liberty University has some 15,000 on-site students, with a further 100,000 on-line, and claims to be the largest Christian university in the world. Forbes ranks Liberty #651 among US Universities, and its graduation rate (48%) is among the lowest for private universities. However, the Young America Foundation places it among the top 10 choices for conservative students. Glasgow readers may remember it as the alma mater of Pam Stenzel, who told horror stories about sex to Catholic school children bussed in to hear her (more here and here). Read the rest of this entry

Highland Education Committee Church Appointee blames gays for bullying

The Strathspey Herald reports that:

‘A clergyman has used his position on a Highland Council education committee to criticize the alleged promotion of homosexuality in schools. Read the rest of this entry

A Creationist Speaker Comes to Town

Long but detailed; updated resources include rebuttals to creationist claims, including dinosaur soft tissue, and teaching exercise on Lucy. I have mined this for links. There is also a discussion of bible-basd arguments, for those (like the author) to whom such things are important.

Letters to Creationists

By the early 1800s European geologists (many of them devout Christians) realized that the rock layers they observed had to be far older than the 6000 years allowed by a literal interpretation of Bible chronology. For instance, as discussed here , angular unconformities like that shown below could not been formed in the course of the one-year-long Flood of Noah.

Angular Unconformity at Siccar Point, Scotland. Siccar Point, Scotland (Photo: Wikipedia “Hutton’s Unconformity”) Angular Unconformity at Siccar Point, Scotland. Siccar Point, Scotland (Photo: Wikipedia “Hutton’s Unconformity”)

Numerous other evidences for an old earth have been observed by scientists over the past two hundred years. These include fossil soils, and massive deposits of salt and of limestone in the midst of sedimentary rock layers, and tens of thousands of annual layers in lake bottom deposits (“varves”) and in glaciers (see Some Simple Evidences for an Old Earth). We can trace, in reasonable detail, the movements of the sections of earth’s crust over the…

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Young Earth Creationists arguing in circles

Relative dating from sedimentology dates back some 200 years, as beautifully explained here by my friend, field geologist and Anglican priest, Michael Roberts, with illustrations from what he has seen himself, while we have now had absolute radiometric dates for over a century. Index fossils are used only to establish that rocks are the same age, and the way creationists manage to forget this fact is indeed miraculous.

This piece gains added interest because of its first-hand accounts, both of geological exploration, and of attempts to persuade creationists to accept the results.

Peddling and Scaling God and Darwin

This incredibly duplicitous meme appeared on my twitter feed today. Fri 13th Jan 2017icrevolution

Evolution is wrong as it is a circular argument from the age of fossils worked out from evolution

Yes, it is the old chestnut of Young Earthers that the age of rocks is based on a circular argument from evolution. It took me back to 1971 when I made the felicitous mistake of going to L’Abri to sit at the feet of the evangelical guru Francis Schaeffer. I arrived ther all bright-eyed and bushy tailed thinking of all the wondrous things I would learn in the next four weeks. I learnt much but not what I had expected.

On my first morning i was sent to Shaeffer’s son-in-law Udo Middlemann to discuss what I would study. I explained that I was going into the Anglican ministry and had just returned from 3 years working as an…

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