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Casey Luskin leaves Discovery Institute; I will miss him

Center_for_Science_and_Culture_(logo)Casey Luskin has just announced his departure from the Discovery Institute, in order to further his studies. We will miss the enlightenment that he brings. For example, in his farewell piece, he tells us that

Evolutionary biologists are now admitting we need “post-Darwinian” models to explain the Cambrian explosion.

Casey is right; we really do need “post-Darwinian” models to explain the Cambrian explosion. Things like Mendelian inheritance, mutation, population genetics, and, in this context, palaeogeochemistry, which is why evolutionary biologists have been decidedly post-Darwinian since around 1905.

Casey does not tell us what he is going to study, but I rather hope that it will be chemistry. Then, in due course, he will be fully equipped to explain to us that Dalton couldn’t even get the structure of water right, that Faraday’s electrical theory of bonding needs to be revised in the light of quantum mechanics, that many of the postulated intermediates in chemical reactions have never even been observed, that (as predicted by Intelligent Alchemy) many of Lavoisier’s elements turn out not to be elements at all, and that our schools should allow students to evaluate for themselves the unwarranted metaphysical assumptions of chemical materialism, and the merits of the phlogiston theory.

Disclosure: unlike many far better people, I have been insulted by Casey only once, when he accused me and the British Centre for Science Education of concealing our atheism for tactical reasons. Guilty as charged; we conceal it so well that one of BCSE’s most prominent members at the time, now its official spokesman, is an Anglican priest. Devious, these evolutionists. You need to watch them.

Casey, you will be sadly missed.

Update; more here: The word is that he will be replaced by Ann Gauger, who knows more biochemistry and therefore has, and uses, a  much greater capacity for misunderstanding.

Darwin vs today’s creationists; Eugenie Scott in Glasgow


Lady Hope; Darwin on religion; varieties of creationism; creationist activity in UK; Petition 1530; Intelligent Design and the varieties of creationism; the eye; continental drift and biogeography; Mendelian inheritance; ancestry of whales; varieties of creationism; the “missing link”; Q&A

This is my personal selection from the talk that Genie gave to the Glasgow Skeptics on Monday February 15, as best I recall it. I thank her for a copy of her slides, and any misinterpretation is entirely my own fault (I have added some comments of my own in parentheses).

the title of the talk was: “What Would Darwin Say to Today’s Creationists?” The answer is just this:

Haven’t you been paying attention during the last 156 years?

Lady Hope and the myth of deathbed conversion

The first thing that would surprise Darwin if he could come back to life today would be the legend of his death-bed confession, to a certain Lady Hope, of reversion to Christianity and renunciation of evolution. Lady Hope is real enough. An evangelist and temperance crusader, she was a colleague of the philanthropist James Fegan, who ran a mission to London’s street urchins. Fegan corresponded with Darwin, who in 1880 gave him permission to use the reading room at Downe House for his work, and it seems plausible that Darwin and Lady Hope might have met around then.

In 1915, we have Lady Hope being reported at a Baptist revival meeting as having said that she spoke with Darwin in his death bed, and that Darwin had confessed to a love of scripture, and to regretting things he had said when younger. More specifically, that as a young man with unformed ideas he had thrown out suggestions that to his surprise spread like wildfire. (I note that Darwin in his autobiography confessed to an initial love of Paley’s natural theology, and in The Descent of Man to surprise at the speed with which evolution had been accepted, and remarks of this kind may be the seed of Lady Hope’s account.) In 1915, Lady Hope was over 70, so knowing how memories are reworked, and how stories grow in the telling, we can see how the totally false story that we have today could have arisen without conscious mendacity.

Darwin’s religious views

As for Darwin’s own views, he referred to belief in the punishment of unbelievers as “a damnable doctrine”, and may well have turned away from the idea of a benign deity after the death of his dear daughter Annie. (However, if I understand his Autobiography correctly, he continued to regard “this immense and wonderful Universe” as more than the product of mere chance[1], and eventually retreated into agnosticism only because he regarded the matter as beyond human understanding; I have discussed this here, and how more sophisticated modern creationists misdescribe his views here) .

Young Earth and other varieties of creationism


The Cococino sandstone layer, showing the cross-bedded structure.  This, when examined together with small-scale and granular texture, identifies it as a wind-swept dune deposit.

Darwin, who was a geologist before he became a naturalist, would be very puzzled by Young Earth creationism, since in his time the Churches accepted (and churchman geologists contributed to) the geological column and the implication of many millions of years. Young Earth creationism and “creation science”, as a claimant to speak for mainstream Christianity, only arose in the mid-20th century. “Creation science” needs to account for the plain facts of geology, and does so in extraordinary ways, asserting for example that the entire Colorado Plateau, successive strata with a depth of over a mile, were laid down and drained within a year by the waters of Noah’s Flood. Hence creationists’ obsession with the Coconino Sandstone, whose texture and cross-bedded structure (as known since before 1945; see here and references therein) are characteristic of a wind-blown desert dune, and their extraordinary attempts to rationalise the claim that it was laid down under water.

Creationism is invariably associated with religion, and with those schools of religious thought that place great emphasis on the sanctity of a particular text. (Since such texts are ancient, they could hardly do other than adopt a creationist viewpoint.) Darwin probably never considered Islamic creationism, Turkey (despite still being a great European power) being seen as remote and exotic. Acceptance of evolution seems to vary widely throughout what one might call the Muslim world, but is a worryingly low 35% in Turkey. Turkey is home to the prolific publicist Adnan Oktar (Harun Yahya), publisher of the Atlas of Creation, which attempts to deny that evolution has occurred by comparing present-day forms with fossils. The Atlas’s scientific methodology, however, leaves much to be desired. Its “caddis fly” image is a photograph, not of an insect, but of a fishing lure. (I fear the problem of Muslim creationism may be deep-seated and widespread. I have written about the emerging alliance between Intelligent Design creationism and conservative Islam in Scotland, while in 1985, the then nominally secularist Turkish Government invited the Institute for Creation Research to help draft the school curriculum.) In the UK, according to a Theos/Comres 2009 survey, only 37% of those surveyed said that humans are the result of purely naturalistic evolution, 28% said we are the result of evolution according to God’s plan, 11% believed in evolution guided by divine intervention, and only 17% embrace separate creation. (The authors of the Theos report on the survey, themselves, describe evolution as “uncontestable”[2].)

There are varieties of creationism. Young Earth creationists accept biblical chronology, and think that present and extinct species coexisted. Old Earth creationists accept versions of the scientifically agreed chronological sequence, but regard each stage as a separate phase of the Creator’s activity. Guided evolution accepts common descent, but treats successive changes as the result of divine intervention (perhaps by intervention at the molecular level). Intelligent Design considers mutation as a random process, and, neglecting the role of selection, improperly infers that it cannot generate meaningful novelty. (In the US, Intelligent Design advocates are generally Old Earth creationists, but in the UK leadership and allies are more often believers in a young earth.)

Creationism in the UK and its opponents; the current Petition

Creationist bodies are very active within the UK. Creation Ministers International has a UK branch (which caused furore by sending a speaker to the publicly funded St Peter’s Academy in Exeter, a mistake by the school that will not be repeated). There is Truth in Science (which sent copies of the creationist pseudo-text book, Explore Evolution, to every school in the UK), and others. Various bodies, such as Skeptics, Humanists, and the British Centre for Science Education, actively work to restrict their influence, and the Scottish Secular Society’s Public Petition PE01530 (with which regular readers will be very familiar) aims to keep creationism from being presented as valid in schools.

The eye, continental drift and biogeography, Mendelian inheritance, the ancestry of whales, and the mythical missing link

GenieEyeDarwin would have been very interested in the direction of creationism in the UK, and the revival of the design argument, which he regarded as refuted by natural selection. When he considered the eye as a structure that at first appeared too complex to have arisen naturally, he pointed out that it could have arisen from a photosensitive spot, through a directional cavity, to an enclosed structure whose fluid would concentrate the light, and eventually, via the development of the enclosing membrane into a lens, to the complexity of the mammalian eye in its present form. We now know that all these imagined stages are actually evident in molluscs.

He would have been delighted by continental drift, which solves long-standing puzzles in biogeography. Biogeography is one of the most convincing arguments in favour of evolution. It explains, as separate creation can not, why the flora and fauna of continental islands are closely related to those of the adjoining land mass, while those of oceanic islands are restricted and exotic. And yet, how come there were marsupials in Australia and in South America, but nowhere else? (North American marsupials crossed from the south, after the relatively recent closure of the isthmus between the two continents). We now know that marsupials appeared when present-day Australia, Antarctica, and South America were joined together in the supercontinent of Gondwanaland, allowing migration of marsupials from their original South American home, and indeed marsupial fossils have been discovered in Antarctica.

He would also have been delighted to learn of Mendelian genetics, which solve the “dilution problem”. Under blending inheritance, a favourable variation would appear in less intense form in the offspring of the favoured individual, but genetic inheritance avoids this. Instead of the character being passed on with half the intensity, it is passed on with the same intensity to half the offspring.

Darwin was ridiculed (still is, by particularly ignorant creationists; see here) for speculating that the behaviour of a bear swimming with his mouth open to catch prey was a clue to the ancestry of whales, which clearly are mammals. Yet within the past 40 years, we have accumulated detailed fossil knowledge (free access review article, from which the image below is taken, here)  of all the intermediate stages linking present-day whales to their even-toed terrestrial ancestors. This is part of a general phenomenon. Darwin famously lamented the gaps

Whale evolution ;the first 10 million years


in the fossil record, and present-day creationists echo these laments, as if they were still warranted. Thus they commonly repeat a remark made some decades ago, to the effect that all known human ancestral fossils would fit onto a small table. Not any more. The human fossil record is now so rich, that we have more specimens of the relatively obscure species Homo habilis than we have of Tyrannosaurus rex.



A sample of the skulls of species intermediate between modern humans and other apes


So the scientific record (including much not even touched on here), ever since the publication of On the Origin of Species, has been one of steadily reinforcing the central concepts of common descent, and of natural processes driving evolution.

What, then, would Darwin set to today’s’s creationists? Simply this: “Haven’t you been paying attention during the last 156 years?”


GenieFbImageQ: Is there a risk that so uncompromising a talk would put off those sympathetic to creationism?

AS: I would not give this talk to such an audience. There are those whose identity is bound up with creationist religion, whom I cannot hope to reach; those uncertain, to whom I would present the arguments for evolution; and those, like tonight’s audience, who need no convincing.

Q: Are creationists dishonest?

A: Most ordinary creationists are either misinformed or muddled. The higher echelons go through considerable mental contortions, but I have no reason to doubt their sincerity.

Q: How can we respond to those who consider “Goddiddit” a satisfactory explanation?

A: Science is highly valued socially and culturally. So any ideologue tries to recruit science. Hence “creation science,” and devices like imagining the speed of light to have been much higher in the past, so as to allow light from galaxies billions of light years away to have reached us within 6,000 years. “Creation science” is a procrustean bed, on which all observations are distorted until they fit the initial biblical assumptions.

This is contrary to the key moral value of science which is the admission of fallibility. Science as process depends on critical examination and revisability. We need to impart this, not by telling but by showing, and showing by asking. The dandelions on our lawn have short stems, but those over there have long stems. Why might that be?

1] This idea of overall cosmic design is of course the very opposite of the kind of piecemeal meddling that goes by the name of “Intelligent Design theory” today.

(2] Theos is funded by the Templeton Foundation, making it anathema to some exponents of evolution. I have argued that such doctrinal purity is misguided.)

Casey’s Creationist Christmas

The British Centre for Science Education (BCSE)  has long maintained that the Seattle-based Discovery Institute (DI), of which Glasgow’s own Centre for Intelligent Design (C4ID) seems to be a satellite, is a religiously motivated Creationist organisation. Casey Luskin has now demonstrated this with great clarity in his response, in the misleadingly titled Evolution News and Views (“Serving the Intelligent Design Community”), to the recent opinion piece “Anti-Creationists need to think about tactics“, which we recently posted on this and on the BCSE website. Thanks Casey.

As our title and opening words make clear, our piece is addressed by us, as individual nonbelievers, to other nonbelievers, giving our reasons for cooperating with believers in defending science against Creationism. It does not even mention DI, or C4ID, or Intelligent Design. Nonetheless, Casey seems to find our piece relevant to his mission. Perhaps his concern with religion is not surprising, since the foundation document of DI’s Centre for Science and Culture gives the restoration of a “theistic understanding” as a core objective. As for Intelligent Design, few people can still believe the pretence that it is anything more than a cover for Creationism (in the strict sense of the term as applied to biological diversity), but it is good to see our thoughts on these matters so authoritatively confirmed.

There are many more reasons why being attacked by Casey has been compared to being savaged by a dead sheep. Here are a few of them (remember here that Casey is a trained lawyer, and has published on law in an internationally recognised journal, so presumably he has read what he refers to and means what he says about it):

  • He describes the two of us as spokesmen for BCSE, although the very first words of our article are “We write here as individual non-believers” [ emphasis added]. We are not spokesmen for BCSE, although we serve on its committee.
  • The spokesman for BCSE is a distinguished historian of geology and theology, the Rev Michael Roberts, Vicar of Cockerham, Glasson and Winmarleigh.
  • Casey selects BCSE as an example (his only example) of British secular and Humanist groups. Yet BCSE takes no position on matters of religion, a fact that he himself acknowledges later, nor on matters of Church and State relationships in general [1].
  • This is clear from the BCSE website, and indeed from the very piece he criticises.
  • He describes BCSE as a participant in “the ‘fight’ to teach evolution”, although such teaching has been, as it must be, part of the standard curriculum for decades.

(Incidentally, he didn’t link to our piece properly – he just linked to the blog front page. The kindest interpretation is oversight.)

For those of you unfamiliar with the background, here are a few pointers.  The Discovery Institute is a religiously driven Crypto-Creationist group pushing a stripped down and camouflaged version of Creationism called Intelligent Design. This approach was hastily adopted for legal reasons in the US, where schools in the public sector are not allowed to promote religion, when Creationism and later Creation Science were ruled in the courts to be religious, not scientific, doctrines.

Creationist tactics rest upon three pillars. The first of these is that Evolution is in fact Atheism and that this whole political fight is one of Christians versus Atheists. No wonder Casey refers to BCSE as secular and humanist.

We talk about this fact in the very piece that Casey is attacking.  We mention that there are two reasons Creationists adopt this tactic.  First of all the conflict narrative is effective for the recruitment and retention of Creationists to their cause, as to any cause that involves a conspiracy theory (see earlier post here).  Secondly the conflict narrative is used to move the public debate away from “Creationism is daft” to genuine Atheist versus Christian issues.  Creationists know that by framing the debate in such terms, they have a far greater chance of obtaining mainstream support.

So you can see why the BCSE really do get up Casey’s nose.  We are helping to stem his flow of recruits and we are making sure he fights on weak territory where he is very much outgunned.

The second pillar of Creationism is to argue that Evolution (and by implication most modern science) is bad science.  One basic technique here is quote-mining, taking words out of context, so that debate among scientists is misrepresented as rejection of the agreed foundations of the science. Casey’s commentary on our piece is a fine example of such quote-mining. As you can see, he uses it to pretend that our discussion of why we [2] support BCSE is an admission by BCSE of what would, if true, be gross hypocrisy.  This technique works well when leavened with lies, since the only rebuttal is a potentially tedious analysis of the actual texts.  Creationists regularly do this with scientific papers, and their fake textbook, the misleadingly named Explore Evolution, is based on this strategy.

The third pillar of Creationism is an appeal to fairness.  Usually Creationists need to stack the deck a little by lying about their opponents to make this approach seem reasonable.  Just as Casey did in this case where he lies about our roles in the BCSE, the nature of the BCSE, the very existence of a respected Christian as our spokesman, our stated goal and the fact that we have already put this into practice.  We ran a successful lobbying campaign that united notable scientists, atheists, Christians, secular and religious groups and contributed to a change in the way UK Free Schools are set up.  Again this is actually described in the piece he is attacking.

The main thrust of our article is actually advice from two atheists aimed at anti-theists and points to evidence that working with the religious through the BCSE is a very effective tactic for fighting Creationists.  Casey has chosen to misrepresent this as a plot by BCSE to lure the religious into supporting an atheist agenda, and this forces him to lump his fellow Christians, when they defend evolution science, together with atheists.

Perhaps now you can see why Casey is frightened of the BCSE approach. He needs to create a whole world of straw-men, if he is to avoid the truth.  The truth is that his Creationist position is based on theology, and minority theology at that, and has no basis in science.

PS Dear Casey,

We would really like to know, from your point of view; our article didn’t mention Intelligent Design at all, so, if the Discovery institute is not a Creationist organisation, why did you even bother with it?

Merry Christmas

This piece was written by Mark Edon and Paul Braterman and is also available through the BCSE website here

1 Church and State issues are very different in the UK from what they are in the US. See e.g.

2 Throughout this piece, as in our original piece, “we” and “our” refers to Mark Edon and Paul Braterman as individuals.

Anti-Creationists need to think about tactics

By Paul Braterman and Mark Edon. This piece first appeared on November 30, 2012, on the BCSE website.

 We write here as individual non-believers in support of the “accommodationist” position taken by the British Centre for Science Education (BCSE), on whose committee both of us serve.  We consider that there are over-riding tactical and strategic reasons for this position.  As non-believers defending science, we are being unreasonable if we criticise the godly for failing to combat Creationism, and then, for fear of ideological impurity, refuse to link arms with them when they do.

Followers of the political & religious controversy surrounding evolution [1] will be aware of a subsidiary debate amongst those who do accept modern science, that encompasses such issues as; “Is it possible to believe in god and accept the science?”, “Should the objective of the debate be the acceptance of science or the rejection of god?” and “What is the best way to get people to accept the science?

The British Centre for Science Education  (BCSE), comprising volunteers from science, education and business backgrounds, is a single purpose organisation.  Our objective, shared by our members regardless of their religious position, is to keep Creationism out of UK schools.  The simple fact is that the Government (in its policy statements at least), other mainstream political parties in the UK, the established Church and other mainstream churches all agree on this.  In the UK, only a minority of self-identified Christians think that creationism should be taught, while Young Earth creationists complain that the vast majority of evangelicals reject their doctrine.

The current Coalition Government Free School and Academy programs have given Creationists in the UK opportunities that they had never previously dreamt of and, through what we sincerely hope is mere oversight, July 2012 saw the first crypto-Creationist free school applications approved.  They will be getting tax payers’ money to teach children, at the expense of the local authority education budget, although the local authority will have no control over them and at this stage no-one knows what they will teach.

The BCSE wants to campaign against Creationism in a way that unites the widest possible range of opinion and so we don’t campaign for or against any of the following; atheism, religion, faith schools, free schools or academies, although many members and committee members hold strong views on many of these issues.

If you look at the activities of Creationists here in the UK you can see that their main campaigning tactic is to present themselves as Christians making perfectly reasonable requests about education policy, all in the spirit of fairness, whilst being attacked by militant atheists.

So it is in these circumstances that the BCSE campaigns against Creationism with all and any who will agree with us on this issue, regardless of any disagreement on other issues.  This means we are neutral on matters of religion and we are glad to work with the religious and non-religious alike.  The CrISIS campaign, in which we took part last year, which culminated in a letter to Michael Gove signed by the National Secular Society, Richard Dawkins, Jim Al-Khalili, Susan Blackmore, Andrew Colman, David Colquhoun, Christopher French, Adam Hart -Davis, Julian Huppert MP, The Rev Canon Theologian David Jennings, Steve Jones, Dr Stephen Law, Clifford Longley, the Rev Michael Roberts, Simon Singh MBE, Canon Theologian Keith Ward, and education lecturer James D.  Williams, exemplifies this, as did a similarly broad-based subsequent campaign, which we supported, by the British Humanist Association.

BCSE’s experience of working with representatives of the clear majority of the religious population in the UK that accept the science, and our knowledge that UK Creationists unremittingly promote an “Atheists versus Christians” narrative during recruitment and campaigning, has lead us to often repeat the fact that the majority of religious people have no problem with the science.

These two aspects of what we do: 1) working with the religious and non-religious alike, 2) pointing out that accepting the science is fine with the established church and the large majority of the religious, are far from protecting us against criticism.

Creationists still accuse us of promoting an atheistic ideology, and even level this charge against ordained ministers and other committed believers amongst our members but then they do the same to that vast majority of Christians who accept the science, and even the (outgoing) Archbishop of Canterbury is not spared.  Some nonbelievers label us “accommodationists” for working with the religious and for not arguing against the existence of god, claiming that because religion is correlated with Creationism the only way to counter Creationism is to campaign against religion.  For want of a better label, we will refer to nonbelievers in this camp as “anti-theists”, in the belief that many already call themselves this and that it doesn’t offend or mislead.  This seems less clumsy than “anti-accommodationists”.  If a better label exists we will happily adopt it.  Whilst we are on the subject of labels, we reserve the term “Creationists” for those who deny the well-established science of evolution and common descent, and, in many cases, of an ancient earth and even more ancient Universe. This is quite different from the philosophical creationism that accepts these realities, but sees them as, ultimately, the work of a deity.  Some who should know better seem unsure of the difference between these positions and thereby play into the hands of the enemies of reason.

Unfortunately, anti-theists or those who can be labelled as such, when campaigning against Creationism, are vulnerable to the line invariably taken by Creationists that they are just Atheists persecuting Christians.  Thus our good friend Richy Thomson, BHAFaithSchools and Education campaigner, found himself outmanoeuvred in a radio phone-in discussion of a proposed Creationist school in Sheffield, when the advocate of Creationism change the terms of debate by pointing out that his opponent was against faith schools and religion in general.  Similarly, when a Creationist on Radio Five was asked to say if he wanted Creationism taught in science classes or not, he ignored the question and claimed that the BHA was prejudiced when evaluating the scientific evidence and wanted to restrict the rights of the religious.  The correct response would be to point out that the large majority of religious people think that Creationism is silly too, perhaps with some examples but again the point at issue was lost.  While only a very tiny minority of people are pushing Creationism into UK schools, they create the illusion of broad support by such muddling of issues.

It is worth stating plainly here that the BCSE neither calls for the religious to give up their faith (indeed, how could it, given the range of opinions in its membership?) nor for the anti-theists to stop campaigning against it.

It seems to us that the Creationists adopt the “Atheist versus Christians” tactic at every available opportunity for two good reasons.

First of all, the conflict and persecution narrative aids recruitment and engenders zeal, especially among the many potential recruits who are at difficult points in their own lives.  Creationist organisers know that being part of a valiant band struggling against the odds offers both a sense of belonging and the chance for the leaders to prove their honesty and intelligence by accurately predicting ridicule and rudeness from people outside the group.  In this way the weirder the claims, the stronger the ridicule, and the more strongly members are driven into the group.  This is why you find so many Creationist groups publicising the fact of their opponents calling them names.

Secondly, and more at issue here, the conflict narrative very often means the public debate can be swiftly moved away from “Creationism is daft” to genuine Atheist versus Christian issues such as faith schools.  Creationists know that in such debates they are part of a much larger and more respectable group and readily identify themselves as simply “Christians”.

So how should we proceed?

There seems to be agreement amongst anti-theists and accommodationists that some Creationists can be won over to accept the science, although both sides currently see this as a rare event and base their claims upon anecdotes [2].  Is loss of faith or is accommodation of science with religious belief the reason for such changes of mind? Well, the anecdotes suggest both are possible paths that individuals do travel.  However we still have no quantitative data on the reasons why, despite this obviously being of great interest to all.

A recent paper in Evolution Education and Outreach by Southcott and Downie [3] does give us some hints at data on this topic, but not much more than a reason for more research.

The data relates to biology students at GlasgowUniversity between 1987 and 2011 who rejected evolution.  Here are a few highlights but please go and read the thing for yourselves if you are interested.

First of all things that anti-theists and accommodationists agree on:

From the abstract.

Evolution rejection was closely related to accepting a religion-based alternative, whereas acceptance was related to finding the evidence convincing.  Although many religious students accepted evolution, 50% of Islamic students were rejecters, compared to 25% of Christians.

Anti-theists seem to go on from this to deduce that as Creationism comes from religion you must counter religious belief to counter Creationism.  This simply does not follow.

A question testing acceptance of several scientific propositions showed no evidence that evolution rejecters were generally more skeptical of science than accepters.

That is surprising, although it could be that evolution rejecters were simply unaware of the full implications of their position.  Moving on.

A breakdown of evolution into three components (human origins, macroevolution, and microevolution) found that some evolution rejecters accepted some components, with microevolution having the highest acceptance and human origins the lowest.  These findings are discussed in terms of strategies for evolution education and the phenomenon of evolution rejection worldwide.

This reflects the common Creationist tactics of claiming to accept micro evolution so as to avoid the appearance of rejecting all evidence out of hand.

Now some highlights from the rest of the paper.  Rejection of evolution at GlasgowUniversity is running at between 3.9% and 4.4% in samples taken irregularly between 1987 and 2011 (they used some data from previous studies for comparison) and from the small numbers available it seems that Islamic students are about twice as likely as Christian students to reject evolution.

The overall level of students with a religion was down over the various study years and the association of religion with evolution denial strengthened.

This next bit made us sit up and pay attention (our emphasis);

All level 4 [now in their final year at uni] rejectors belonged to “low evolution” degree programs.  It is clear that for most of them, no amount of scientific evidence would overcome their beliefs, a more entrenched position even than that taken by level 1 rejecters.” (“Low evolution” here describes courses such as psychology or pharmacology, as opposed to, say, zoology.)

So it would appear that logical and evidence based argument is futile with these folks.

This next bit was also very interesting.

By level 4, our evolution rejection sample size was very small, but the importance of a belief precluding evolution remained the main factor.  Our sample size for switching from rejection to acceptance was also small (n=7), but it is fascinating that these students were less affected by scientific evidence than by a realization that evolution and their religious beliefs were not in conflict.

So for these students in Glasgow, reaching some kind of personal accommodation between the science and their faith was the path to accepting evolution.

This next finding fits in with recent survey findings for the UK population as a whole.

It is worth emphasizing that, although evolution rejection was strongly associated with holding a religious belief, the majority of believers accepted evolution.

These are the results of just a few surveys in one university and more research will be required to inform appropriate educational strategies.

In the meantime we have a political battle on our hands and this article lays out the reasons why opponents of Creationism in publicly funded schools in the UK should think carefully about their tactics.

In summary, the reasons for even the most dedicated opponents of religion to adopt accommodationism in the political fight against Creationism are twofold.

  • Tactical advantage gained by appealing to a huge majority support by including the religious non Creationists.
  • Strategic advantage as the Creationists are denied one of their main recruitment and retention tactics and we give ourselves the best chance of reducing their hardcore support.

Anti-theist groups need no permission from us to continue their own wider campaigns and agendas but they should seriously consider working with an accommodationist umbrella group like the BCSE to maximise their political effectiveness in this particular fight.

As for the situation at the time of writing, BCSE strongly supports the BHA campaign of protest against the recent decision to allow Creationist groups to open Free Schools, while (in accord with the spirit of this article) drawing attention to the fact that the issue here is not religion versus irreligion, but science versus the denial of science.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

1  but which on examination includes the denial of such vast swathes of modern science including physics, earth sciences and cosmology as they all speak to an old earth, plus so many other related disciplines, that one might as well say that such deniers simply reject science.

2 See Richard Dawkins converts corner for examples of loss of faith and the BCSE community forum for examples of both kinds.

3 Southcott, R.  & Downie, J., Evolution and Religion: Attitudes of Scottish Bioscience Students to the Teaching of Evolutionary Biology, Evolution: Education and Outreach, Springer New York, 1936-6426, pp.  1-11, , Doi: 10.1007/s12052-012-0419-9

Jerry Coyne at the Glasgow Skeptics – a personal account

Monday night, November 26, I had the great pleasure of hearing Jerry Coyne at the Glasgow Skeptics on the subject of  Why Evolution is True (And Why Most People Don’t Believe It), and had a short enjoyable chat with him in the interval. This report reflects his views, and on occasion mine. To avoid misunderstanding, I should emphasise that it does not represent BCSE as an organisation, which is neutral on matters of faith.

He was aware of and approved of the broad coalition, ranging from Richard Dawkins to Canons of the Church of England, that forced the UK Government to clarify its position against creationism. I had to tell him that Gove had nonetheless ignored his own guidelines by allowing creationist groups to set up publicly funded schools. We had some discussion about whether different religions had different degrees of tolerance towards evolution; I suggested that the reason I was much more accommodationist than him, is that for me religion suggested positions like C of E, whereas for him it suggested anti-intellectual fundamentalism. He seemed to take kindly to this idea, and also to my suggestion that different varieties of religion may differ greatly in their willingness to accept evolution.

Most of his talk covered much the same ground as his book, Why Evolution is True (a must read if you haven’t already), though I certainly benefited from seeing the argument laid out in such concentrated form, and am posting my notes on this part of the talk separately.

Jerry quoted depressing statistics, mainly from the US, about how few people accepted evolution and how many preferred creationism. According to a 2005 Harris poll, only 12% of Americans thought that only evolution should be taught in schools, while 23% thought that only creationism should be taught, and most wanted both.

Why does this matter? Because evolution is a matter of self-knowledge, basic knowledge about what kind of place the Universe is, and our place in it. It is a wonderful example of science in action, and besides, there’s a lot of cool stuff in there.

After discussing the science, he made some very interesting observations about how societies react to it. Given that the evidence for evolution is so overwhelming, why do so many people continue to deny it, and why are the numbers so slow to change? In the US, since 1982, the proportion of creationists has held steady at 44%, those believing in theistic evolution has changed from 38% to 36%, and the only notable change has been an increase in acceptance of materialistic evolution from 9% to 14%, no doubt reflecting the growing number of unbelievers. (I think that the preference for theistic over naturalistic evolution may be less worrying than it sounds, since I doubt if many people distinguish between overall divine control of nature, which would be perfectly compatible with naturalistic evolution, and specific supernatural intervention in the process, which would not).

Clearly, a situation where more Americans believe in the reality of angels than accept evolution is deeply worrying.

So why is evolution so maligned by religion? Because it undermines religious views of human specialness, and of the purpose and meaning of individual life, and (a common and deeply felt objection) is seen as undermining morality. If we compare different countries, religious belief has a powerful negative correlation with acceptance of evolution. It would follow that if we want people to accept evolution, what we need to do is weaken the influence of religion. In support, Jerry quoted a survey according to which, if faced with a scientific finding that contradicted the tenets of their faith, 64% of Americans said that they would reject the finding.

What I found most interesting was Jerry’s quoting from recent (2009 and 2011) studies, showing that religion correlates with social dysfunction (see ) and economic inequality (see ; cut and paste links if necessary). If so, the way to improve public acceptance of science may be to tackle inequality and social dysfunction. This would point in the direction of very broad alliances indeed, and I can see how recent political campaigns in the US may have made this prospect more attractive.

We are left with a final paradox. People fear evolution, seeing it as subversive of morality. And yet, the more moral (in the matters that seem to me most important), the more equitable, and the more effectively functioning a society, the more accepting it is of evolution.

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