Category Archives: Science

Evolution, the Iraqi Translation Project, and science in the Arab World

Translations change the course of civilisations. The translation project begun by Caliph al-Mansour in the 8th century CE, and accelerated under his grandson Harun al-Rashid, made available in Arabic scholarly writings from Greek, Aramaic (Syriac), Persian, and Indian sources, and laid the foundation for the flowering of science and philosophy in the Islamic world during Europe’s Dark Ages. A second translation project, from the 10th century onwards, was in the other direction, from Arabic to Latin. Among its initiators was Gerbert d’Aurillac, the future Pope Sylvester II, and it reached its height in Toledo in Spain where for a while Christianity and Islam came into close contact and where Gerard of Cremona translated al Khwarismi and Avicenna (ibn Sina), as well as Arabic versions of works by Ptolemy and Aristotle. It refreshed Europe’s contact with classical learning, while also conveying what was then current scholarship. It was the pathway through which Christian Europe rediscovered Aristotle, while Avicenna’s clinical expertise is mentioned in the Canterbury Tales. His writings on geology, which I have discussed elsewhere, were among those translated at this time, but originally misattributed to Aristotle.

Avicenna_Expounding_Pharmacy_to_his_Pupils_Wellcome_L0008688L: Avicenna expounding pharmacy to his pupils, from the 15th century “Great Cannon [sic] of Avicenna”; Wellcome Library via Wikimedia. Click to enlarge.

Happily, if belatedly, another translation project is now under way, from English to Arabic, focused largely on science-related topics of general interest, with special attention to evolution.

Why evolution? Not only because of its central role in modern life sciences, but because Read the rest of this entry

If you are interested in evolution, get this book

EVOLUTION: What the Fossils Say and why it Matters, Donald R. Prothero (2nd edition)

If you are interested in evolution, get this book. And make sure that your library gets it. And your children’s highschool library. Incidentally, it’s incredible value; list price $35.00/£27.95 from Columbia University Press, with over 400 lavishly illustrated pages.

The book is a comprehensive survey of the fossil record, supplemented at times with other evidence, and framed as one long argument against creationism. It opens with a general discussion of the ideas behind current evolutionary thinking, moves on to a survey of specific topics in (mainly animal) evolution, from the origins of life to the emergence of humanity, and concludes with a brief discussion of the threat that creationism poses to rational thinking. The argument is laid out clearly in the seemingly artless prose of an accomplished writer in love with his subject matter, with plain language explanations that presume no prior knowledge, while the detailed discussions of specific topics give enough detail to be of value, I would imagine, even to a professional in the field. The author is an experienced educator and researcher, with thirty books ranging from the highly technical to the popular, some 300 research papers, and numerous public appearances to his credit, and the work is copiously illustrated with photos, diagrams, and drawings by the author’s colleague, Carl Buell. These illustrations are an integral part of the work, graphically displaying the richness of the data at the heart of the argument. Read the rest of this entry

How to learn from creationists

“The wise learn from everyone.”1 The freak success (half a million reads) of my recent piece How to slam dunk creationists, and the subsequent discussion, have again set me thinking about how to learn from creationists. It is not enough to say, as Dawkins notoriously said, “[I]f you meet somebody who claims not to believe in evolution, that person is ignorant, stupid or insane (or wicked, but I’d rather not consider that).” Conversation is a two-way street, I have certainly learnt from creationists’ attacks on evolution, and if I am learning from them it is at least possible that they are learning from me.

Types of comment

Comments I have had from creationists fall into three broad groups (and note that contrary to what Dawkins says, some of these are at least partly informed, highly intelligent, and completely rational):

1) Simple misstatements

2) Appeal to the Bible

3) Purportedly scientific arguments, some without merit, while others refer to important issues.

From simple misstatements, not very much can be learnt, except perhaps the source of the misinformation. Remember that if someone quotes wrong information, the burden of proof is not on you but on them. Leave it there, as in this actual exchange: Read the rest of this entry

On learning that the Iraqi government is dropping evolution from schoolbooks

This is how I appeared on Arabic-language Science News, أخبار العلوم – Science News, after a Facebook friend translated my remarks into Arabic

Teaching biology without mentioning evolution is like trying to teach chemistry without mentioning atoms. If you deny evolution, you have to deny the entire fossil record and also all the evidence of molecular biology. And evolution has nothing to do with religion. Within all the world’s great religions, there are thinkers who accept the evidence for evolution, and regard evolution itself as one of God’s creations. We do not allow scientists to tell religious leaders how to teach religion, so why should we allow religious leaders to tell scientists how to teach science?

The destroyed al-Nuri mosque and its gate in the old city of Mosul. Photograph: Ahmad Al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty Images (via The Guardian)

 

 

 

Commenting on the recent decision by the Iraqi government to remove evolution from the school textbooks, I wrote these words to one of my many new-found Iraqi friends [1], a young man in Mosul now able to speak his mind after three years of Isis suppression; he then quoted me on Arabic-language Science News, أخبار العلوم – Science News, which has led in the first 12 hours to a brisk correspondence, more than a thousand likes, over fifty shares, and some not always friendly commentary in which chimpanzees feature prominently in my own assumed ancestry. I can only express my admiration for someone who, sheltering somehow in the ruins of that city, finds time to think of such things.

1] My piece on evolution in The Conversation was noticed by a Baghdad-based Arabic-language blog

How to kill the dinosaurs in ten minutes

Ten minutes difference, and Earth would still be Planet of the Dinosaurs

Ammonites Haeckel

Not only vertebrates, but ammonites, marine molluscs, perished in the disaster. Image (Haeckel, 1904, via Wikipedia). Click on this and other images to enlarge

We have suspected for some decades that the dinosaurs1 became extinct as the result of a massive meteorite, an asteroid, hitting the Earth. We have known where the impact site was since 1990, if not before. But it is only last year that we successfully drilled into the impact site, and only now, for the first time, do we really understand why the impact was so fatal. And if the meteorite had arrived ten minutes earlier, or ten minutes later, it would still no doubt have inflicted devastation, but the dinosaurs would still be here and you wouldn’t.

66.1 million years ago, dinosaurs covered the Earth. 66 million years ago, there were none. And not only the dinosaurs, but the pterosaurs in the skies, the long necked plesiosaurs and even the ammonites in the oceans, and 75% of all complex animal life. No terrestrial vertebrate heavier than around 25 kg seems to have survived. What happened? Read the rest of this entry

Darwin’s Boulders

From my friend the Rev Michael Roberts. How Buckland and then Darwin, exploring in Wales, came to accept Agassiz’ Ice Age theory, with Michael’s own stunning images of locales. And no kittens, I’m afraid, but a field assistant [sic] dog

Peddling and Scaling God and Darwin

In June 1842 Charles Darwin undertook his last geological field trip. He was at his father’s house, The Mount  in Shrewsbury, that month and after a winter of sickness, he felt somewhat better. Thus, he went in his gig to Snowdonia to assess whether Buckland was correct in identifying proof of a former Ice Age. In October 1841 William Buckland travelled to Wales with Thomas Sopwith (his grandson designed the Sopwith Camel, a WW1 fighter plane) to see whether Agassiz could be right about a former Ice Age. In a few days of horrendous Welsh weather Buckland identified all the main glacial troughs

Buckland

Buckland dressed for Welsh Glaciers by Thomas Sopwith

084

View from top of Y Garn 3104ft showing the Llugwy trough leading to Capel Curig, Llyn Idwal, a morainic lake.

To the left is Nant Francon, viewed below – with embellishments.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABucklandArchiveCauseEffect002

In 1831 de la Beche painted this watercolour…

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How do we know where the carbon is coming from?

Keeling curve

Keeling curve vs prediction based on fossil fuel origin (from Scripps)

In 1957, Charles Keeling of Scripps Institution of Oceanography began regular measurements of carbon dioxide concentration at Mauna Loa, Hawaii. By 1960, he was already in a position to report a steady increase, together with seasonal variations. In the northern atmosphere, CO2 concentration falls during the spring and summer growing season, but recovers during autumn and winter as vegetable matter decays. This sawtooth pattern is superposed, however, on a steady overall increase.

The Keeling curve and beyond

Scripps Institution of Oceanography

Scripps Institution of Oceanography, from Birch Aquarium ((Invertzoo via Wikipedia)

Charles Keeling died in 2005, but the work is being continued by his son Ralph. When I visited Scripps in 1995, I saw Charles Keeling’s original curve, ink on graph paper, on the wall in the corridor outside his office. That curve has now been designated a National Historic Chemical Landmark, and there are commemorative plaques both at Scripps and at the Mauna Loa Observatory. Charles Keeling’s original paper, freely available here, goes into meticulous detail regarding sample collection, calibration, precautions taken to prevent local contamination, and comparisons between the Mauna Loa data and those that numerous other sites, including the Antarctic and samples collected from an aircraft.

By 1985, the record had been extended backwards in time by analysis of air bubbles trapped in ice cores, with dates ranging from the 1980s to the 1600s and earlier. These dates overlap Keeling’s data, and take us back to pre-industrial times. Before long, the ice core record had been extended to an 160,000 years, taking us into the Ice Ages, while further work has pushed it back to 800,000 years. We have estimates going back far beyond that, but employing indirect methods and with higher uncertainty.

Ice core record

Atmospheric CO2, 1700 – 2014; NASA via Forbes. Click to enlarge. Note that the zigzags for atmospheric data are not error bars, but annual fluctuations.

During the Ice Ages, carbon dioxide played a dual role, as product and as agent. The temperature oscillations at this time were driven primarily by subtle changes in the Earth’s motion (so-called Milankovitch cycles). But carbon dioxide is less soluble at higher temperatures (which is why your carbonated drink fizzes inside your mouth). And so in the first place the rise and fall of temperature led to a rise and fall of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, as the oceans released and reabsorbed the gas. But then, the changes in carbon dioxide concentration amplified the original effect, since more carbon dioxide acting as a greenhouse gas makes the Earth lose heat less efficiently into space.

To summarise the results, current levels of CO2 are the highest they have been for over twenty million years. In the centuries leading up to 1800, Read the rest of this entry

The Left Must Find Its Way Back to Science

The sweet potato is a naturally occurring GMO (so are you)

And I would add, in the UK, unreasoning rejection of fracking (even by those who support off-shore oil production) to the list here of environmentally damaging Left presuppositions that urgently need replacement by rational discussion.

Random Rationality

With President Trump committing himself to reversing most, if not all, of Obama’s progressive environmental policies and having pulled out of the Paris Accords, I think it is imperative that the Left take a fresh, evidence-based look at their boogeymen. The Right may have their climate change and evolution denial, but the Left holds onto their fears of GMOs, conventional agriculture, and nuclear power as if they were afraid to lose them. The civilizational knife-edge we find ourselves atop of, as well the pushing and shoving Trump is adding, demands that the Left right their wrongs. Apparently, the Left is the party of science, and while that has always been a stretch, there’s no better time to make it so.

With the departure of the world’s second largest emitter from the first worldwide accord that attempted to limit climate change to within 2 degrees Celsius above baseline, that means that the rest…

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Michael Gove, the doctrinaire ignoramus now in charge of UK environmental policy

It does not matter very much that Michael Gove mistakenly imagines that Boyle’s law is some kind of a fundamental principle. It matters a very great deal, however, that he saw fit to tell teachers that they should teach it as such. It is a sad reflection on the British educational system that Gove, an Oxford graduate, thinks that Newton wrote the laws of thermodynamics, thus showing unawareness of the difference between 17th-century mechanics and 19th-century molecular statistics; the difference between the age of sail and the age of steam. But again, that need not in itself mattered too much. What does matter at many levels is his wish to have “Newton’s laws of thermodynamics” incorporated into the physics curriculum. In both cases, the shameful ignorance displayed is not in itself the major problem. The real concern is Gove’s willingness to impose his ignorance on those who know better, a willingness that led the National Association of Head Teachers, hardly a group of dangerous radicals, to vote no confidence in him. I have written on these topics before, most recently when he bid to become Prime Minister (“Why Michael Gove is not fit to lead anything”) but thought when that bid failed that I could let Gove lapse into the security that he so richly deserves.
Not so, alas. Gove is now Secretary of State for the Environment Food and Rural Affairs. Not topics on which I am an expert, so I will simply hand readers over to someone who is; Miles King at A New Nature Blog:

a new nature blog

Last week I wrote about Michael Gove’s surprise arrival as Secretary of State for the Environment Food and Rural Affairs. There is so much more to write about this, but time is limited and I will not be able to cover everything in one piece.

Gove obviously has achieved notoriety amongst the Education establishment, by driving through unpopular reforms to the National Curriculum and to the testing regime. As these reforms have only recently been implemented, the benefits, or damage they cause will only become clear in the years to come.

As a parent with children in the education system I will see personally what Gove (and his comic-book villain sidekick, Dominic Cummings) has done for the future of my family, aside from his (and Cummings’) leading role in Brexit.

His subsequent stint at the Ministry of Justice was too short for him to have achieved anything, either way. Perhaps…

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An indisputable fact?

This Geological Society Special Publication summarises historical and current thinking on the age of the Earth; free download here

The age of the Earth is around 4.55 billion years. Is this an indisputable fact? How would you answer a creationist who asked you this? I ask for a reason.

I was recently emailed by a stranger who wrote:

I am a college student taking Geology for the first time and there is a debate amongst the students in class. I am contacting you to assist in settling this dispute regarding the age of the earth.

If given the choice between these two rudimentary statements, would you say that:

(a) It is an indisputable fact that the earth is [around] 4.55 billion years old.

or

(b) Based on current scientific evidence, the earth appears to be 4.55 billion years old; however, future generations may find evidence that has the potential to either substantiate or refute our current model.

I replied:

Excellent question. But the answer MUST depend on the threshold for disputability.

Do you think it is an indisputable fact that the Romans invaded Britain? If so, you must say that it is an indisputable fact that the Earth is around 4.55 billion years old.

If you say that this age of the Earth is disputable because, in principle, further evidence might make us change our minds, then you must also say that it is disputable that the Romans invaded Britain.

People often say that this or that scientific fact is uncertain because it is always in principle revisable. But the same is true of ALL our knowledge about the world.

Does this help? Please let me know how this plays out.

I am not satisfied with my answer.

Roman mosaic, Fishbourne, 1st Century CE; click to enlarge

The question uses the rhetorical device of the false dilemma. If I say that the age is indisputable, I am violating the principle that scientific knowledge is open to challenge by new evidence. If I say that it is disputable, the questioner has succeeded in driving a wedge, with scientific orthodoxy on one side, and me on the other, alongside Young Earth creationists. This of course is the entire purpose; people don’t go around asking whether the existence of atoms is indisputable. By refining the issue as I did, I have slipped between the horns of the dilemma. Sound logic, feeble rhetoric; looks like I’m wriggling when faced with a straightforward question.

What else could I have said?

Mosaic, Fishbourne, image by Charlesdrakew – Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4755271

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