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Reviewed: The Incredible Unlikeliness of Being; Grandmother Fish

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.

UnnamedGrandmother 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.

Publication: pending. Initial partial draft available on request here (technical note: the mammalian tree shown there has since been updated). Diagram from book draft website.

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.

Alice Roberts 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.

My Day on a Plate

Prof Alice Roberts holding a replica of a skull (not, in this case, her own)

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.

From cell division to implantation, with the cells beginning to form separate layers

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.

Figures from Prof Roberts’ personal website, and Amazon website.

Disclosure: this review is of the first Kindle edition, personal purchase.

These reviews first appeared here, on 3 Quarks Daily

This blog in 2014

67,355 direct hits from 146 countries. An unknown additional number from being reblogged on other sites, and from other blogs which I have contributed. I am particularly proud of the links I have established with blogs aimed at explaining evolution to religious believers. In my view not the least of the intellectual crimes of the creationists is their arrogant claim that theirs is the One True Understanding of ancient texts, and unbelievers and thoughtful believers are natural allies in the never-ending struggle against obscurantism.I am also gratified by the way in which material from this blog has found its way into newspapers in both Scotland and England, and even, recently, into Forbes Magazine, because of the effect of this on public opinion.

UWASocrates_gobeirne_croppedThe most popular post, overall, must have been Socrates, evolution, and the word “theory”, since this, in its 3 Quarks Daily version, reached the #4 spot on Reddit Philosophy. Next, probably, comes The natural, the supernatural, and the nature of science which appeared on ScientiaSalon, Massimo Pigliucci’s platform for professional-level discussion between philosophers and scientists (Massimo accepted this while totally disagreeing, as he made plain in his comments, with my conclusions). This in turn was based on two posts here on science and the supernatural; The natural, the supernatural, and the nature of science and Why we get it wrong and why it matters. These posts share a single theme, namely the limited value of purely verbal arguments. If we accept that all men are mortal and that Socrates is a man, then, just as the classical theory of syllogisms tells us, we must conclude that Socrates is mortal. But, as Bertrand Russell pointed out many years ago, we have not actually learnt anything from this process, because we would not have agreed that all men are mortal unless we were committed to accepting the mortality of Socrates in the first place. And those who claim that science of its very nature excludes the supernatural are laying themselves open to the only valid criticism to emerge from the twentieth century revival of creationism, namely that such a presumption begs the question regarding supernatural intervention. I follow Maarten Boudry in saying that on the contrary, science does not exclude the supernatural, but regularly examines it and finds it wanting.

On this site itself, the most visited post was Noah’s Ark Zoo Farm Responds to Criticism , in which the Zoo Farm compounded the intellectual offences pointed out by Alice Roberts, followed by Evolution is a lie says the school. Good curriculum, says England’s School Inspectorate (the school in question was following the ACE curriculum, described by my friend Jonny Scaramanga) and Why I do NOT “believe in Darwin’s theory of evolution”. The most significant in their effects, I hope, have been the recent series regarding creationist infiltration into Scottish schools, and current endeavours to persuade the Scottish Government to issue guidance against this.And one popular post providing a reference resource of ongoing value is PhD Thesis of Sylvia Baker, founder of “Christian” (i.e. Creationist) Schools Trust. This spells out precisely what creationist tactics are regarding the teaching of evolution, history, and morality, and the extent to which they are successful.

Portrait of Alice Roberts

Professor Alice Roberts, from her web site


As mentioned, I have had visits from 146 different countries. Largest in terms of population, India and China (yes, I did get one hit from China narrowly defined, plus I think a few from Hong Kong), smallest, Faroes. I find the numbers encouraging, but even more encouraging is the quality of some of the followers I know I have attracted, and the breath of the blog’s reach. Most readers are from the UK (hardly surprising, since I write so much about what is happening there), with the US and Canada not very far behind, but what gladdens me even more than these are the hits from less obvious places, from all the countries of South America and South-east Asia, and from every country in the Middle East except Syria and Iran, but including Libya and the rest of North Africa, and even one lonely embattled reader from Afghanistan.

I will shortly be posting about my plans for the future, and in particular my hopes to move away from the current political preoccupations that now distract me more than I would wish from thinking about the underlying science and how to present it. But whether this will happen depends on events far beyond my control.

In conclusion, I would like to thank my readers, comment-makers whether they agree with me or not, the managers of the other sites on which I have posted blog pieces, and the many individuals, some named in individual pieces and some not, to whom I am intellectually indebted. To all of you, a happy and productive New Year.

BBC Newsnight on evolution: Mind your language, and don’t say “theory” unless you mean it

Paxman“Evolution is a theory”, said BBC pundit Jeremy Paxman last night[1] to Alice Roberts, and when Prof Roberts tried to explain that it was only a theory like the motion of the Earth is a theory, he interrupted her to say that the motion[2] of the Earth is an empirical fact. Well, as Prof Roberts was finally allowed to say, evolution is also an empirical fact. So for facts’ sake, let’s stop calling it a theory.

I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again. There’s a war on between those who want to preserve our scientific heritage, and those who dismiss it as “materialism” and want to replace it with a view that they themselves call theocentric. These enemies of enlightenment are not stupid or WedgeTextwicked. They understandably want to preserve our reverence for human uniqueness, and misguidedly imagine that the only way to do this is to deny the indelible stamp of our lowly origin. For this reason, they will go to great lengths to misunderstand the science that tells us our real place in Nature, and to call the fact of evolution a “theory” is to invite just such willful misunderstanding.

In common language a theory always involves speculation and uncertainty. In academic discourse, it means a coherent set of ideas that explain the facts. Calling something a theory in this sense tells you nothing at all about how certain it is. A theory can be wrong (phlogiston theory), known to be approximate from the outset (ideal gas theory), very close to the truth but since improved on (Newton’s theory of planetary motions), or as certain as human knowledge ever can be (number theory in mathematics). Of course you can explain all this, but you should not put yourself in such a vulnerable position in the first place. It wastes time in debate, or in the classroom. It puts you on the defensive, and thus, paradoxically, confers legitimacy on the attack. It allows the focus to shift from what we know about the world to the words we use to talk about it. This takes us away from science to the domain of the philosophers, lawyers, and expositors of Scripture who are fighting on behalf of Creationism.

And so it distracts from what you should be talking about, namely the facts. Evolution, whether we mean changes in the genetic make-up of populations over time, or the common descent of living things on earth, is a fact. It is supported by, and explains, innumerable more specific facts concerning the fossil record, molecular phylogeny (the same kind of evidence that is used every day in DNA paternity tests), the frozen-in historical accidents of organs that have lost or changed their function, the distribution of species throughout space and time, and much more besides. Creationism cannot explain these, or any of the other facts of evolution science, except by appeal to the mysterious ways of the Creator.

Nor should we ever say that we “believe in” evolution. Believing always carries with it the feeling that disbelief is an option. Some members of the jury believe the witness, others don’t. Some people believe that Hillary Clinton will be the next President of the United States, but no one would say they “believe” that Barak Obama is the current incumbent, because no sane person doubts it. I don’t “believe in” atoms, or gravity, or quantum mechanics, because I regard them as established beyond dispute, although our notions about them will no doubt continue to change as we learn more. And exactly the same is true of evolution.

Should we ever refer to the “theory” of evolution? Yes, but not when we mean the fact that evolution occurs. There is a theory of evolution, but it is not what Jeremy Paxton seems to imagine it is. Genetic change and common descent are known facts, as well established from the fossil and molecular records as the order of England’s kings and queens is from the historical records. Mutation is a fact. There are theories (interlocking sets of ideas) about just how evolution happens. Natural selection operating on existing variation is a theory, so is neutral drift, so is punctuated equilibrium, and all of these are subsumed into the present-day theory of population genetics, the foundations of which were set in place in the 1920s, before we even knew the nature of the genetic material. All this and more goes to make up the modern theory of evolution.

So yes, there is a theory of evolution, but in the same way that there is a theory of chemical bonding. It is a theory about how it happens, not if. To take an analogy from chemistry, the quantum mechanical theory of bonding is about how atoms stick together to make molecules, not if. If someone were to deny that matter is in fact made out of atoms sticking together, we would regard them as ignorant, or perverse, or strangely misled, and the same is true of anyone who denies that we share a common ancestor with chimpanzees and bonobos.

Does it matter? Yes, it matters enormously. Creationists often maintain that evolution and Creation are both beliefs, whose respective advocates differ, not about observable facts, but about how those facts are to be interpreted. And they contrast evolution, as “only” a theory, with facts or even with scientific laws, in order to claim that it is far from certain and that views refuted over a century ago still deserve a hearing.

We should not, ourselves, be using words that help them do this.

Part of this post appeared earlier this year, here, but Paxton’s tactics give it new context and relevance, and my suggestion about when we should refer to the “theory” of evolution is as far as I know completely new.

[1] Newsnight, 16 June 2014; the sector on the teaching of evolution starts 29 minutes into the programme.

[2] Actually, he spoke of its roundness, but let that pass.

Evolution is a lie says the school. Good curriculum, says England’s School Inspectorate

MaranathaPlaque Maranatha Christian School, featured in a BBC news report this week, teaches that the Earth is 6,000 years old, that this is a scientifically established fact, and that evolution has long since been scientifically disproven. Then why do some scientists still advocate it? Because they don’t want to admit the existence of a God to whom they would be morally responsible. It is these GodlessEvolutionsame benighted evolutionists who are responsible for the theory that the Sun is powered by nuclear fusion., whereas in reality it is powered by gravity, and shrinking at such a rate that it would have been large enough to engulf the young Earth if the Earth really were millions of years old. But of course we shouldn’t be contemplating any such silly idea, because God has told us different and that settles it. The waters above the firmament in Genesis 1 ended up feeding Noah’s flood, which was accompanied, as in Henry Morris’s “Creation Science,” by fierce volcanic activity. Obsidian cliffs (!) prove that Yellowstone was once under FloodVulcanismEd 16.34.12water. Geological strata match flood geology, but not the Old Earth geology favoured by “some” [sic] scientists. Fossils were caused by rapid burial under flood sediments. Random mutations could not have led to progressive evolution; proving this “fact” is a stated course objective. Evolution in any case defies the laws of thermodynamics, which are clearly referred to in the Bible. All this and more is in the ACE (Accelerated Christian Education) curriculum, and you can find out much more about it at Leaving Fundamentalism, the website of my friend Jonny Scaramanga who speaks of ACE education from bitter personal experience. Despite all this, the school was rated “Good” last October by Ofsted, the English Schools Inspectorate, as are numerous other schools using the same curriculum. Why? Because, among other things like having improved on earlier safety standards,

Teaching and the curriculum are of good quality. Work is highly individualised and is mostly well matched to pupils’ capabilities. … Pupils demonstrate high levels of independence when learning…

In reality, Jonny tells us, pupils in ACE schools sit in individual carrels as they work through identical rigidly defined modules, albeit at their own speed, and are evaluated on their ability to answer multiple choice questions restricted to the content of these modules, while the role of the teachers is largely restricted to answering questions based on the text. This may explain why several staff members at Maranatha, described as monitors or supervisors, appear from the school’s web site to have no academic training or teacher training at all, other than that provided by ACE. But I have omitted a very important part of the report:

Pupils’ spiritual development is promoted outstandingly well. Christian beliefs and values permeate all aspects of school life.

When I hear the words “Christian beliefs and values,” I always wonder what they mean. What beliefs and values, for instance, are shared by American Tea Party politicians, the Pope, liberal think-tanks like Ekklesia, Unitarians (sometimes described as believing that there is at most [1] one God), and the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland which refuses to celebrate Christmas? Happily, in this case, the school tells us how it defines Christianity in the Statement of Faith on its web site:

The Bible is the supreme final authority in all matters of doctrine and conduct… the original creation of all things by God for His own pleasure in six literal days

(Appeal: when you come across such revealing statements of faith or other matters from educational establishments, first take a screen shot since they have a strange habit of disappearing when publicised, and then please send me a copy for my files.)

How, I wonder, does the Bible display its authority in everyday matters? First, from a biology module, on why cheating on the job or at school is wrong. Illustrated by a father-son dialogue:

“The Bible tells us that we should be ‘subject’ to those who are in authority over us because those who are in authority have been placed in that position by God. If I fail to obey my employer, I also fail to obey God.”

“ I see what you’re saying, Dad. God has placed the school personnel in authority over me. If I disobey them, I also disobey God.”

Then on matters of social policy. Here the Ace curriculum is quite explicit:LeftRight

“In economics, politics, theology, and so forth, people take their personal position somewhere on the spectrum between the two extremes of the left and the right. They think, make decisions, and act based upon their position.

“Each man’s philosophy is rooted in his relationship with God. Therefore, where he settles on the spectrum depends on his relation to Biblical absolutes.”

So there you have it. Left Wing bad, Right Wing good, and the more Right Wing the better. That’s because the Left are godless and have no values. If this is not extremism, what is? And yet, the BBC tells us, of the nine ACE schools inspected by Ofsted since the start of 2013, eight of them were rated either good or outstanding. I can only wonder whether they would have come up with the same ratings if the values that “permeate all aspects of school life” had been based on any other faith or lack of faith, or if the Wisdom message had been that the Left, rather than the Right, had a monopoly of virtue. According to the BBC,

Ofsted said it had previously not been authorised to assess the schools’ curriculums – only the quality of their teaching and leadership – but that under a “new tougher inspection regime” for independent schools introduced in April schools were now “expected to teach a broad and balanced curriculum”.

Is this change going to help things? I doubt it. Ofsted may say they were not seeking to examine the curriculum at the time it last inspected Maranatha, but they did so anyway, describing it as “of good quality.” To be fair, the ACE curriculum only takes up a little more than half the school day, I have only focused on Maranatha because it happened to feature in the BBC story, and I have indirectly heard good things about Maranatha’s non-ACE activities. None of this, however, excuses it from espousing as its core activity a curriculum that presents creationist twaddle as real science, grants a monopoly of Christianity to a lunatic far-right fringe, and impugns the motives and credentials of generations of scholarly believers who seek to accommodate their understanding of Scripture to scientific reality, from John Ray in the 17th century through Darwin’s friend Asa Gray to Ken Miller, Francisco Ayala, and Francis Collins in our own day.

What of the BBC? They, after all, have a responsibility to a far wider audience, if a less individually powerful one, than Ofsted. In some ways, they come out of it rather well. They gave JeremyVineJonny Scaramaga a good radio billing (BBC iPlayer here, 12/06/2014, 1:09:29 on; a planned TV billing was trumped by the breaking news from Iraq). And their news piece, to which this is a response, gives ample space to ACE’s critics. But how do they describe ACE’s teaching on evolution? As “particularly controversial.” No, it is not “particularly controversial”; it is flat out wrong. And ACE’s  teaching of Young Earth creationism’s imaginative fiction as correct science doesn’t even get a mention, nor does its strange views on how religion relates to politics. But for a broadcaster, as for any journalist, time is limited, so I think we can forgive them. Not so UK’s NARIC, National Academic Recognition Information Centre. All EU states, and many others, have such centres which advise on the value of qualifications obtained in other countries, and other non-standard qualifications, so what they say matters. NARIC UK aroused alarm and dismay by recognizing ACE-based qualifications, and even after public questioning has continue to advise

that, despite the acknowledged differences in modes of learning, the ICCE [International Certificate of Christian Education, keyed to ACE] qualifications compared broadly to CIE [Cambridge Internal Examinations] O and A levels with regard to their learning outcomes and knowledge competencies. …

In particular, as part of this later study some issues were observed with the Biology programme, which were reported back to ICCE with recommendations on the redevelopment of certain aspects of the programme to ensure closer comparability with the academic level of A and O level qualifications. …

As a commissioned report to ICCE, UK NARIC are therefore not in a position to disclose any detailed content without the client’s consent.  However, given the level of interest in the ICCE awards by universities and employers, and with permission from ICCE, an information section on the ICCE qualifications and the ACE curricula has been included in UK NARIC’s International Comparisons database, which may be accessed by registered users.

In other words, they won’t explain the reasons for this decision to the likes of you and me, because this is a study that ICCE paid for. Words fail me. AliceRobertsWhat should now be done? Professor Alice Roberts has suggested that the teaching of creationism be banned in all schools. I see problems here; where in a court of law would you draw the line between teaching about creationism, as is surely appropriate when discussing the history of ideas, and teaching creationism as such? Besides, I have qualms about such close micromanagement of schools outside the public sector, given my opinion (as should be clear from this article) of the quality of management services that Government agencies and their like currently provide. But we can at least stop pretending that it has any merit, stop recognizing schools that practice it, stop accepting it as any kind of qualification, and stop funding all schools including preschools that provide it. Wouldn’t that damage pupils already in the system? Yes it would, but no more than leaving things as they are. I thank my BCSE colleagues, and Jonny Scaramanga, for useful discussions. [1] But even this condition seems to be relaxed nowadays, with the Unitarian Church admitting pagans. [2] For completeness, I should also mention that Christian Education Europe, who market ACE in the UK, have issued a statement to the BBC, in which they say

Our curriculum does point to God as the creator; this is a view we are entitled to hold as there is enough robust debate around the question of evolution/creation within the scientific community itself to make this a valid decision, based on personal choice.

CEENote the multiple confusions between the scientifically neutral idea of God as creator, the existence of robust debate among evolutionary scientists, and the specific claim of anti-scientific creationism. CEE go on to justify this claim by linking to the writings of one Jonathan Sarfati, a Ph.D. chemist who works with Creation Ministries International. The Sarfati material starts with a common misrepresentation of something written in 1929, so often repeated by creationists that I discussed here a few months ago, and goes downhill from there. For my fellow chemists: Sarfati has published on tetraphosphorus tetraselenide. I have published on tetrasulphur tetranitride. Obviously, our paths were meant to cross.

Creationism in the classroom; in 2 minutes you can help stop it; here’s how and why

Readers in England in particular, please write to your MP in support of the BHA campaign to combat Creationism, including Creationism in publicly funded schools; details here. The rest of this post is an explanation of why, shockingly, such action is necessary. In post-principle politics, it would be naive to suggest that this or perhaps any feasible alternative Government is really interested in the merits. The Creationists are a coherent constituency, who make their voices heard. Defenders of scientific reality (regardless of their position on religious matters) must do likewise. Dr Evan Harris assures us, and he should know, that 20 letters to an MP are a lot (Glasgow Skeptics 2011). So the readership of this column, alone, is enough to make a real contribution. Do it. And ask your friends to do likewise.

 The school “will retain its right to censor papers, under agreed conditions.”

Jewish faith school caught censoring questions on science exam papersYesodey Hatorah (Charedi Jewish) Senior Girls School blacked out questions about evolution on pupils’ science exams in 2013. One wonders how this was even possible, given that exam papers are supposed to be sealed until opened at the specified time in the presence of the pupils. However, when the relevant Examination Board, OCR, investigated, they were satisfied that no students had received an unfair advantage, and took no action. The Board now tells Ofqual, the government agency responsible for the integrity of examinations, that it intends “to come to an agreement with the centres concerned which will … respect their need to do this in view of their religious beliefs.” And OCR’s chief executive says the case has “significantly wider implications and could apply to other faith schools.

It gets worse; or perhaps it doesn’t. The school now says that it does teach evolution, but in Jewish Studies, that “there are minute elements within the curriculum which are considered culturally and halachically [in terms of Jewish law] questionable” (evolution a minute element!), that “This system has successfully been in place within the charedi schools throughout England for many years,” and that “we (the school) have now come to an agreement with OCR to ensure that the school will retain its right to censor papers, under agreed conditions.” The latest word, however, is that this agreement, and Ofqual’s acquiescence, may be unravelling under scrutiny, illustrating the importance of public awareness and response.

 Creationist Noah’s Ark Zoo Farm claims 15,000 school visitors annually and boasts of Government body award

Noah's Ark Zoo Farm, Bristol, England, UK         File:NHA.jpg

Noah’s Ark Zoo Farm, near Bristol, which claims to be visited by 15,000 schoolchildren annually, promulgates the view that Noah’s Ark is historic (and indeed, pre-historic), displays posters arguing that apes and humans are too distinct to share a common ancestor, and suggesting how the different kinds of animal could have been housed in the Ark, which it regards as historical (Professor Alice Roberts reported on her own visit last December; I have discussed the Zoo Farm’s reaction to her account) . The giraffes, for instance, would according to one poster have been housed in the highest part of the vessel, next to the T. Rex (Hayley Stevens, private communication).

 This Zoo Farm recently received an award from the Council for Learning Outside the Curriculum, which justified itself by referring to”education that challenges assumptions and allows them to experience a range of viewpoints; giving them the tools needed to be proactive in their own learning and develop skills to enable them to make well informed decisions.” Connoisseurs of creationism will recognise this as a variant of the “teach the controversy” argument, which advocates presenting creationism and real science as alternatives both worthy of consideration, and inviting schoolchildren to choose between them.

 “We do not expect creationism, intelligent design and similar ideas to be taught as valid scientific theories in any state funded school.”

Evolution will become part of the National Curriculum in 2014. However, that curriculum is not binding on Academies or Free Schools. The Government assures us that this is not a problem, because all schools need to prepare for external exams, and these exams, of course, include evolution. Exams that the schools have now been openly invited to censor. There is supposedly clear guidance for state-funded schools in England. Michael Gove, Education Secretary, has declared himself  “crystal clear that teaching creationism is at odds with scientific fact”, and official guidance to Free School applicants states “We would expect to see evolution and its foundation topics fully included in any science curriculum. We do not expect creationism, intelligent design and similar ideas to be taught as valid scientific theories in any state funded school.”

The reality however is that what are clearly creationist establishments do get government funding. Creationist preschools, to which the guidance does not apply, can and do receive public money through nursery vouchers, while being run by organisations such as ACE (see below) that openly teach rigid biblical creationism along with even more rigid gender roles. BHA knows of 67 nursery schools that are run by Creationist or other organizations that openly reject the basics of biology. Some of these directly teach Adam-and-Eve history as fact that must be believed, and Government funding to these nursery schools may also be indirectly underwriting primary and secondary schools run by the same organizations.

 “We will teach creation as a scientific theory” 

In addition, a number of Academies and Free Schools have been licensed despite clear warning signals. Grindon Hall Christian School , formerly private, was licensed to receive public funding in 2012, despite a record of teaching creationism, and a website Creation Policy, hastily deleted after it received public attention, which stated “We will teach creation as a scientific theory”. Newark School of Enterprise, until recently expected to open in 2014, is a thinly disguised relabelling of Everyday Champions Church School, which was originally denied licensing because of its obvious links to a creationist church. (Last month, it was announced that the Government had withdrawn support for the school on other grounds.) Ibrahim Hewitt, of the Association of Muslim Schools, has said that his members’ schools, including six state-funded ones, taught children about Darwin, because they had to, but they also taught a different, Koranic view. The ill-fated al-Madinah School originally specified “Darwinism” as un-Koranic on its website, but under “curriculum” now says only “We are committed to providing a broad and balanced curriculum for all our pupils.  Further information will be available in due course.”

Pray for CST In the private sector, we have Christian Schools Trust (CST), with 42 schools. Some of these are applying for “Free Schools” status; so far unsuccessfully, but Tyndale Community School, which has been approved, is run by Oxfordshire Community Churches which also runs the CST Kings School in Whitney. CST schools teach Genesis as historical fact, with the Fall as the source of all evil, and discuss evolution in such a way as to make it seem incredible. According to the Ph.D. thesis of Sylvia Baker, founder and core team member of CST, 75% of students end up believing in Noah’s ark. Dr Baker, author of Bone of Contention and other creationist works,  is also directly linked to Genesis Agendum, a “creation science” website, and language in her style appears in the related WorldAroundUs “virtual museum”, which claims to show that

                               Book cover image: Bone of Contention

evolution and old Earth geology are outdated scientific paradigms in the process of crumbling (for a detailed analysis of the museum’s arguments, see here, where I describe it as a “museum of horrors”). Since 2008, CST and the Association of Muslim Schools have shared their own special inspectorate, of which Sylvia Baker is a board member. So the foxes placed in charge of the hen house have under two successive Governments been entrusted with the task of evaluating their own stewardship.

World Around Us

“…. towards a post-Darwinian view: some of the evidence”

 “…a body of recent, peer-reviewed scientific evidence is presented which suggests that all is not well with a number of aspects of evolutionary theory. Is this a paradigm crisis?
Organisms reveal levels of interdependence, and are therefore irreducibly complex.
Many of the rock formations result from catastrophic rather than gradual uniformitarian processes
The principles on which radioactive dating is based can be questioned”

In an even grosser scandal, NARIC, the National Academic Recognition Information Centre, has approved the ICCE advanced certificate, based on Accelerated Creation Education (ACE), as equivalent to A-level. ACE has claimed, and in the US still does claim, that Nessie is evidence for a persistence of dinosaurs, and teaches that evolution has been scientifically proven false, and that those who accept its “impossible claims” do so in order to reject God. This in a text that prepares students for a certificate that NARIC would have us accept as preparation for the study of biology at university. And NARIC is the body that provides information on qualifications on behalf of the UK Government.

The Hopeful Monster Theory

The ACE curriculum’s straw man version of evolution

In all these cases, the actual offence is compounded by official complacency or collusion. I can only guess at why is this allowed to happen, but among relevant factors may be official concerned with procedures rather than outcomes, scientific illiteracy among decision-makers, free market forces (the exam boards, after all, are competing for the schools’ business), misplaced respect for differences, and electoral calculation. Religious zealots form an organised political pressure group, while their reality-orientated co-religionists are far too slow to condemn them. Ironically, these co-religionists have even more to lose than the rest of us, as their institutions are subverted from inside, and their faith brought into disrepute.

In response, those of us who oppose the forces of endarkenment must become recognised as a constituency, not necessarily in any formal sense, but in the sense that politicians are aware of the depth of our concerns. Numbers are increasingly on our side, since young people are more sceptical than their elders, and Humanists, secularists, Skeptics, and even geeks are our natural allies. And so, on this issue, are liberal-minded believers from all faiths. There is need for coordinated public pressure, through teachers’ organisations, other educational bodies and learned societies, publicity and protests after specific cases revealed, and campaigns such as the BHA letter-writing campaign that is the subject of this post. So here, once more, is the BHA link: Use it.

For other posts on the issues discussed here, as they apply in England and Scotland, see Evolution censored from exam questions in publicly funded English schools, with government permission; PhD Thesis of Sylvia Baker, founder of “Christian” (i.e. Creationist) Schools Trust; Noah’s Ark Zoo Farm Responds to Criticism; ACE Infantile creationist burblings rated equivalent to UK A-level (school leaving; University entrance) exams; and Young Earth Creationist books handed out in a Scottish state school. Poster displayed at Noah’s Ark Zoo Farm, image by Pip through Wikipedia Commons. This post is based on a talk I gave to the Conway Hall Ethical Society on March 16, 2014.

Noah’s Ark Zoo Farm Responds to Criticism

Last month, Professor Alice Roberts visited Noah’s Ark Zoo Farm, a creationist establishment recommended by Answers in Genesis, and wrote a highly critical report of what she found there. The Zoo Farm has replied on the Bristol culture website, and their response only adds further credibility to her strongest accusations. Since this website does not want to be accused of quote mining, I attach, in full, the Zoo’s statement, with our own comments inserted as appropriate. It should be remembered that the Zoo offers a range of what it describes as educational activities, including “an educational day out” for schools, with price discounts, on-site workshops described as being linked to the National Curriculum, and school and nursery outreach packages.

Portrait of Alice Roberts

Professor Alice Roberts, from her web site

Prof Roberts tells of posters in the auditorium and children’s play area, which is presumably where the on-site workshops take place, claiming among other things that there are “30 reasons why apes are not related to man”, that humans were around at the same time as the first tetrapods (was Tiktaalik tasty, one wonders), that rates of radioactive decay were greater in the past, and that these possibilities should be considered as part of “an open, critical approach to explain what we see in the natural world.” She comments

I believe that religious fundamentalism has the potential to ruin scientific education. Apart from obscuring scientific facts, it teaches a way of thinking that is incredibly rigid. The evidence for a (very) old Earth and for evolution is overwhelming.

But believing in these things isn’t like a religious faith – it comes from a belief in evidence…. This [the zoo presentations] is, purely and simply, subversion of science to fit a religious agenda. At Noah’s Ark, you are not allowed to question the Bible. And where science and the Bible clash, every piece of scientific evidence is called into question, shoehorned into place if possible, or thrown out if it’s too dissonant.


A poster at Noah’s Ark Zoo Farm disputes the common ancestry of humans and apes. Image by Pip, via Wikipedia

I can only agree; if anything, I am surprised by the moderation of her language. But it is time to see what the Zoo has to say in reply:

There has been some local interest this week in a Guardian online article written about Noah’s Ark Zoo Farm by television personality Alice Roberts (BBC’s Coast, Don’t Die Young).

The article presents Alice’s personal view on the Christian message which forms a part of our zoo and which is well known by our visitors.

We’re not surprised by her comments as she is well known as a television atheist and humanist who doesn’t like the notion of God being introduced to science.

Alice Roberts is a University Professor (a fact belatedly acknowledged at the very foot of the Zoo Farm’s statement), qualified physician, Ph.D. in palaeopathology, former University Lecturer in Anatomy at Bristol, the University of Birmingham’s first Professor of Public Engagement in Science, and author of over 30 peer reviewed articles and technical reports, in addition to four books and numerous less formal articles.

Her critique of the Zoo Farm does not even mention Christianity. It does describe religion as being based on faith (surely the Zoo Farm’s owners would not dissent from this), and criticises the Zoo Farm for treating the Bible as a source of information on scientific topics. In all of this, every mainstream Christian denomination in the UK would agree with her.  So, indeed, would most Christians in the US, and even one in three US Evangelicals. Prof Roberts is, in private life, an atheist, and she is among other things a highly respected television presenter of science, but the claim that she is a “television atheist” is without foundation.

Noah’s Ark is a Christian organisation which wants to give people the scientific freedom to believe in God as part of their view of how life was made and has changed over time.

No one is restricting anyone’s freedom to believe whatever they like, but the Zoo Farm’s claim that creationism is the same thing as believing in God is a monstrous piece of spiritual pride, and, according to Theologian Canon Prof Keith Ward, “the kind of thing that brings both religion and science into disrepute.” [KW to PB, private communication].

Christianity is the leading religion in the UK and followed either casually or seriously by over 31 million people (2011 Census), an interesting statistic when compared to the 13 million people who characterised themselves as having ‘no-religion’ in the same survey. An important part of our country’s heritage and education system for many decades, like many others we believe religious discussion is still very relevant and compatible with modern society, and the field of science.

Within two covered areas at our 100 acre park we provide some discussion boards which explain the theories of evolution, creationism and re-colonisation; a new paradigm which accepts both the role of God and the complexity of the genome for evolution after an initial creation. We also question whether the biblical story of Noah and his Ark could be true and what evidence there is for a global flood – a popular story which ties in nicely with the theme of the zoo.

The suggestion that Christianity implies creationism is, as discussed above, mischievous nonsense. So is the suggestion that evolution and creationism are theories, in the same sense of the word. There is no evidence for a global flood, and if Noah’s flood is “a popular story,” or even a popular story with an important moral message, so are Aesop’s fables. Evolution is a well attested historical fact, as well as being the theoretical framework for the whole of modern biology, while creationism is a simpleminded fable based on a theology that was looking old-fashioned a thousand years ago. Re-colonisation is not, as claimed, “a new paradigm which accepts both the role of God and the complexity of the genome for evolution after an initial creation,” but an arbitrary and pseudoscientific hodgepodge that accepts the story of Noah’s Ark as history, but places it at the base of the Archaean.

Noah’s Ark is keen to promote thought and discussion for interested visitors, certainly not forcing religious views and pressuring unsuspecting families as unfortunately Alice Roberts’ article confusingly portrays.

For a scientist, Prof. Roberts [sic] article was surprisingly dominated by persuasive language and subversive opinion rather than simply a factual account of her visit, presumably with the intention of encouraging people to share her angry sentiments.

As the article makes clear, Noah’s Ark does indeed force religious views on unsuspecting families, by presenting nonsense as scientific fact. And does the Zoo Farm expect its critics to use unpersuasive language, and who or what is it accusing Prof Roberts of subverting?

It was interesting for us to see Alice with her family during her visit to Noah’s Ark, particularly her young daughter who apparently thoroughly enjoyed our indoor play barn and the large Rainbow Slide, unconcerned by posters discussing God and evolution – probably a little tedious for an energetic child. If Alice is concerned by the effect of these displays on children’s young minds, hopefully her happy daughter enjoying the zoo might allay her fears!

At the risk of aggravating the offence by drawing attention to it, I would ask what right the Zoo has to be monitoring Prof Roberts’s preschool daughter in this way, and publicising the way she spent her day there.

As a popular family attraction at the end of our busiest year with record visitor numbers, we remain confident that people are intelligent enough to make their own minds up about God, creation and evolution if they are interested in reading the discussion we provide at the zoo, and fundamentally come to Noah’s Ark for the enjoyable day out we continue to offer.

A well-known tourist attraction in the south west and winners of important industry awards including the regional ‘Access for All’ award from the Bristol Tourism & Hospitality Awards we have been recognised for providing good access for people of all religions and no religions, race, gender, age and sexuality.

For us, receiving occasional criticism for our Christian theme by opinionated atheists is not new and gives little cause for concern – fundamentally we are a popular family zoo with an excellent and well-cared for collection of animals which is enjoyed by thousands of public and school visitors each year. With the opening of the internationally recognised ‘Elephant Eden’ shortly and more exciting plans for 2014 we are looking forward to another bumper season after the Christmas break.

We enjoy Prof. Roberts television work and public contribution and wish her well in her future projects – both her and her family are very welcome to visit us again should they ever wish to.

Again, my apology for the tedious length. And again, the completely misleading equation of Christianity with creationism, coupled here with distracting remarks about equal access (is the Zoo claiming special credit not excluding gays?).

As my friend the Rev Michael Roberts continually points out, this kind of creationism is a 20th century heresy, spreading through the Abrahamic religions like a cancer, and the plain duty of church leaders is to denounce it as such. A duty that they are dismally failing to perform.

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