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A Creationist Speaker Comes to Town

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

Letters to Creationists

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

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

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

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Intelligent Design or intricate deception? What I told students during the Kitzmiller trial


The University of North Texas, where I was teaching in 2005

Kitzmiller v Dover Area School District, in which judgment was pronounced on 20th December 2005, is the court case that established that Intelligent Design is not science, but a form of religiously motivated creationism, and as such may not be taught in publicly funded schools in the US. This is a shortened version of what I told the students at Texas Academy of Mathematics and Science, University of North Texas’s early admissions programme, whom I was privileged to be teaching at the time of the trial. I have omitted my discussion of the embarrassing Intelligent Design pseudotext, Of Pandas and People, and the even more embarrassing statement that the Dover School Board instructed teachers to read, for reasons of space and because I have discussed them here before.  I have tried to avoid rewriting in the light of what I have learnt since, but insert some comments for clarity, and links where relevant.


Of Pandas and People, the pseudo-textbook at the centre of the Kitzmiller case

This is a rather unusual presentation.  It is the only presentation that I have ever given in response to a specific request from the [then] President of the United States, who has given as his opinion that Intelligent Design should be discussed in schools.  It is the only presentation in which you will see me, a chemistry professor, practicing philosophy and even biblical exegisis; and I should warn you that I am practicing without a license.  It is the only presentation I have ever given with the expectation that a number of people in the audience will be actively hostile to what I intend to say, because the point of view that I stand for is often misrepresented in this society as being hostile to religion.

But what is really extraordinary about this presentation is, that it is necessary at all.  Having been a hundred years in the making, the central notions of evolutionary biology erupted into public awareness a century and a half ago, and, over the following 50 years, the major religious groups of the industrialised world came to terms with these ideas.  The creationist challenge to what has been, for over a century, the central theoretical framework of biology, is a recent development, and, very specifically, a 20th-century American phenomenon.  Very recently, creationism has changed its name to Intelligent Design Theory, but this is a purely cosmetic change.

I expect that this talk will please no one.  I will, as you might expect, argue against Intelligent Design arguments.  Indeed, I will go much further, claiming that such arguments are part of a particular kind of mindset, which I will call literalism (although some call it fundamentalism), and that the rise of this mindset represents a most serious threat to knowledge.

When a majority of Americans polled reject the central concepts of mainstream modern biological science, something is very badly wrong.  I will also argue that the scientific establishment has contributed to this disaster (and when a majority of the American public deny the plain facts of biology, this is a disaster) through its own ineptitude and philosophically muddled teaching.  I will argue that literalism is a harking back to a prescientific mode of thought, that is systematically distorts the way in which its practitioners view the world, and that it represents a seriously impoverished approach at the spiritual level and the level of human affairs, as well as being completely hostile to the spirit and practice of science.

Linnaeus_-_Regnum_Animale_(1735)The standard picture of modern biology, as I will call it, stems from the work of Linnaeus who in 1737 establish the classification that we still follow into species, genera, et cetera.  It was not long before Buffon and others started explaining similarity in terms of family resemblance.  A critical stage in this development took place in the mid-19th century, with the idea that species originate through descent with variation, followed by competition between the different variants.  We associate this insight with Charles Darwin’s publication of The Origin of Species, but the fact that the same key ideas were independently discovered by Alfred Russel Wallace suggests that this was an idea for which the time was ripe.  The entire evolutionary position is still sometimes referred to as “Darwinism”, especially by its opponents, but this is completely unhistorical, and the expression should be reserved for the specific ideas put forward by Darwin, Wallace, Thomas Huxley, and others in the mid-19th century.  Current evolutionary theory is a much refined and altered version of this, much as present day atomic theory is a much refined and altered version of that used by mid-19th century chemists.


The Darwin-Wallace medal awarded by the Linnaean Society

The immediate upshot of Darwin’s publication was intense debate between those who welcomed it as a major scientific advance, and those who saw it as a threat to established ideas in religion, and in particular to the authority of the Bible.  In Europe, and particularly in Britain, the debate was played out in the next few decades, and led to general acceptance by the churches of the correctness of the evolutionist position, and reinterpretation of Genesis in terms of allegory. Darwin himself lies buried in Westminster Abbey.

Since that time, the argument for evolution has enormously strengthened, in ways that Darwin and Wallace could not have foreseen. The work of Grigor Mendel and his successors gave us a science of genetics, which shows how it was possible for variations to be passed on undiluted from one generation to another.  We can understand how the necessary variation arises, because we know about mutations, and since the work of Franklin, Crick, and Watson in 1953, we even know the nature of the genetic material.  In Darwin’s time, there were massive gaps in the fossil record, so large in fact that Wallace continued to believe that humanity was a separate creation, rather than having common ancestry with the apes.  By now, we have a whole range of intermediate forms, so much so that there is held the ongoing debate among anthropologists and paleontologists as to which ones lie on our direct line of ancestry, and which represent evolutionary dead ends.  We have the discovery of deep time, necessary for evolution, and the development of about a dozen separate, mutually consistent, methods of radioactive dating, which enable us to assign dates to fossils, going back over 3 billion years. Finally, and most convincingly, we have the development of DNA sequencing, which makes it possible to give a quantitative estimate of how long different species have been developing separately, and the family relationships discovered in this way bear a remarkable closeness to the family resemblances observable when we classify present-day organisms, and to the distances between branches of the evolutionary tree, as displayed by similarity of features and the fossil record.

I was therefore amazed, on arriving in Texas in 1988, to discover that in the minds of many Americans these matters were still in dispute, and since then I have been appalled at the increasing expression, for largely political ends, of the view that evolution is seriously in doubt, and even that creationism should be offered in biology classes in schools.

I fear that the usual reaction of us scientists including myself until recently, has been to ask “How can anyone believe anything so stupid?”, and then not wait for an answer.  Or, alternatively, to put forward reasoned defenses of the evolutionist position, as I have spent the past few minutes doing, without stopping to examine the thinking of their opponents.  The result is an outpouring of writings by scientists, for scientists, which are either ignored by the creationists, or, worse, mined for phrases that can be used against us.  What I plan to do today and henceforth, is to take a rather different approach, to suggest that the opposition to evolutionist biology depends on what I shall call “literalism”, and to contrast the methods of literalism with those of science.  I shall argue that literalism extends far beyond the usual biblical context that we associate with the word, that literalists will regard as legitimate kinds of argument which to scientists seem downright dishonest, and that through failure to understand the nature of literalism, we scientists and science educators give ammunition to our enemies.  We are losing the public relations battle because we have not taken the trouble to understand what we are up against.

We (and by we, I mean the whole of mainstream science) are at war, and don’t know it.  This is why I am urging scientists to play attack, rather than defense.  If an adversary who is determined not to be convinced demands more evidence, there is no point in trying to give it to him.  He will complain of the inadequacy of any volume of evidence, and will always be able to ask for more, in much the same way that the coal companies keep on demanding more evidence for global warming.  For example, if you point the fossil record as evidence, the creationist will point out that there are times in the fossil record, and however detailed the evidence may be that you offer, there will still be gaps. If you fall for this ploy, you will always be on the defensive, and your opponent will always seem to an outsider to have the stronger case.  As I shall show later by example, what you should do is to ask the creationist why, in his scheme of things, there is any fossil record at all.

Firstly, let me define my terms.  By literalism, I mean the belief that it is possible to find out the truth about things by closely examining words.  By creationism, I mean the belief that separate species or groupings represent separate acts of divine intervention.  Since there is only one serious candidate for the role of Intelligent Designer, and since proponents of Intelligent Design never give us any details of how the designs come to be embodied, I think we must conclude that is simply a form of creationism that dare not speak its name. By absolutism, I mean the belief that it is possible to arrive at a final absolute statement of the truth.  Absolutists generally believe, although logically they do not really have to, that they themselves happen to be the ones in this fortunate position.

We need some terms for the contrary positions.  I shall refer to the opinion that all living things on Earth share a common ancestry as the standard picture.  I will use the term fallibilists for those who believe that, except perhaps in certain areas of mathematics or of direct experience, absolute certainty is not of this world, that some degree of uncertainty attaches itself to all their opinions, and that they are certainly wrong about many things, although they don’t know which.  In their working lives, at least, all scientists are fallibilists.  That is because we care about the facts, and our experience shows that the facts can prove us wrong.  This position leaves no room in science for absolutism or literalism.  Nor should we want there to be, since reality is more interesting, subtle, and complex than our ability to describe it.

I think you can already see how this is going to play out.  Scientists will, ideally at least, make carefully qualified statements, judiciously spelling out the degree of uncertainty in their opinions, and emphasising their willingness to change their beliefs in the face of new evidence. That’s because we care about the facts.  They will maintain, correctly, that literalist arguments are devoid of scientific merit, and will naïvely imagine that that settles the matter.  Literalists will often be absolutists, and will attribute the cautious way in which scientists use words to lack of conviction.  The literalist will freely quote the scientist out of context. The scientist will complain that this is dishonest, that his or her meaning is being distorted, but the literalist will reply, in all sincerity, that he cannot be faulted for simply citing what was actually said.  If the scientist regards the literalist at this point as dishonest, the literalist will regard the scientist as evasive.  The result is that we have a cottage industry based on literalist quotation mining, and a counter-industry in which the defenders of science try to keep up by mending the fractures, and putting the quotations back in context.

All this seems to me a symptom of a deeper problem.  The fallibilist will assume that the conversation is in the last resort a cooperative effort, a kind of conversation, with both parties interested in winding up a little bit closer to the truth.  The absolutist believes he knows the truth already.  For him, the conversation is a competitive debate, where the aim of each party is to vanquish the other.  The absolutist will therefore play by rules closer to those of the law court that the laboratory.  He knows the truth, and all he has to do is to make the case for it.  His job is to assemble all the materials, good, bad, and indifferent, that supports his own case and to trash any counter arguments made by their opponents.  Faced with these tactics, scientists will believe themselves to be the victims of conscious intellectual dishonesty, and may even withdraw from the debate.

Literalism has various attractive features, some of which I have already mentioned.  There is certainty, provided one can convince oneself that one has interpreted the text correctly.  There is power, if you can convince other people of your superior ability to interpret the sacred texts.  There is finality, since once something has been said, with sufficient authority, the issue is regarded as settled once and for all.  There is a sense of comradeship and shared purpose with those that use the same texts as you do. Some literalists go so far as to believe that everybody who agrees with them will go to heaven, and everyone who disagrees will go to hell.  A powerful consideration, which may well distort anyone’s judgment.  For American audiences in particular, there is the ever popular illusion of individualism; this is what I believe, dammit, and no pointy head is going to tell me different. Above all, literalism gives you an easy way of resolving complex issues.  It deals with words instead of dealing with things.  When presented with a thing, the literalist will put it in a box, put a label on the box, and then decide how to deal with the thing by reading the label.

I argued that literalism is intellectually bankrupt in the area of biblical exegesis, quoting 2 Corinthians 3:6: “the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life” and pointing, much in the spirit of Maimonides, to texts that surely were never meant to be taken literally. My first example was day and night on Day One of Genesis, but no sun and moon until the fourth day.


Monument to Maimonides in Cordoba. Photo by Justojosemm through Wikimedia

How could you have alternating day and night before you had sun and moon?  I ran this argument by a literalist, with whom I had a long and informative correspondence, and he said, more or less, no problem: God can turn the lights on and off whenever He feels like it.  Fair enough, perhaps, but notice that if you argue like that, you cannot pretend to be doing science.  By invoking God’s will in this way, you can explain absolutely anything, you can never be proved wrong, and your idea can never be tested against the facts.

The poet John Donne gives, as an example of what humanity does not understand, “Why grass is green, or why our blood is red”.  Oddly enough, one of my own first scientific papers helped answer this very question.  But using Intelligent Design logic, there is nothing that needs to be explained.  Why is grass green, why is blood red?  Because the Intelligent Designer so designed it.  Why is blood green, why is grass red?  Same answer.  Intelligent Design theory can explain anything, which means that it explains nothing.  It leads to a total end of questioning, since all questions have the same answer.  And the death of questioning is the death of science.

I then considered other examples; God being said (Genesis 6:6, I Samuel 15:35) to have changed his mind and repeatedly in Exodus to have hardened Pharaoh’s heart. If you believe in a God who is all-knowing and just, these verses cannot mean what they say. Such arguments, I said, date back to the time of Maimonides, are independent of modern science, and serve to show that biblical literalism is bankrupt on its own terms. I have since discovered the existence of a broad swathe of religious opinion, displayed by Biologos, Evolution Weekend, and the American Scientific Affiliation, who argue in much the same way. I regard the believers in these groups as my natural allies in combating creationism, however much we may differ on other matters.

I said earlier that defenders of the standard picture should stop playing defense, and go on to the attack.  It is high time that I did so, and I will proceed by taking Intelligent Design at its word and evaluating it as I would any other scientific theory.

It is difficult to work out what Intelligent Design really means, because its advocates never tell us how it’s supposed to work, but I shall assume that it means that there is a Designer, capable of imposing his design on matter, and that this designer is extremely intelligent.  Regarded on its own terms of scientific theory, Intelligent Design theory does make one clear prediction. It predicts that organisms should be intelligently designed.  But they’re not.

I stand before you today as living proof of this sad fact.  If a freshman engineering student were to turn in my body plan as an assignment, he or she would be gently taken aside by the instructor, and advised to seek some other way of making a living.  I sprain my ankle and I twist my knee.  I have lower back pain as my disks are squeezed under the weight of my body.  My nose gets congested, and my sinuses, with no good way of draining, are a haven for germs.  My eyes are back to front, with the blood vessels in front of the retina, getting in the way of the light.  I had a dreadful time getting born and millions of children, some of whom I have known, have had an even harder time of it, and ended up permanently brain-damaged.

All of these things are exactly what you’d expect on the standard evolutionary account.  We have superposed upright posture on a skeleton originally evolved for walking on four legs.  The blood vessels in our eyes trace their ancestry back to the blood vessels of the skin, while the light sensitive cells of the retina are outgrowths of the brain.  Over the past few million years, all we simians have been living on our wits, in extremely complex social groups, producing strong evolutionary pressure to enlarge our brains, and in our species in particular this will have been intensified by the ability to make more complex sounds.  As a result, our brains have grown forward over our snouts, distorting the shape of our air passages, and pressing up against the constraints of the pelvic skeleton.  Evolution fits the facts, and may perhaps be correct.  Intelligent Design doesn’t fit the facts, and can’t be.

And how about the use of design as an explanation?  Let us take Paley’s (1802) classic example, a watch.  From the discovery of a watch, we would infer an intelligent designer.  But that is not the end of the matter.  We would have to further infer that this intelligent designer had access to processes, by which material could be shaped to match the design.  Invoking the designer would have to be the beginning of a chain of explanation, not the end of it.  Otherwise the whole process is what I have called antiscience, since it tells us to stop thinking when we come across something that we do not understand, which is just when things get really interesting.

This illustrates a general point, and one that I think is of great importance.  Advocates of Intelligent Design spend much time drawing our attention to aspects of biology where they see weaknesses in the conventional account.  We should be grateful to them for this, but our response should be the exact opposite of what they suggest.  We should not view these problems as defeats for naturalistic science, but as opportunities and challenges.  Thus several systems which a decade ago appeared irreducibly complex, now appear understandable in relation to simpler components.

Here, I suggest, we have a potent winning strategy; by staying true to ourselves as falllibilists, we make our opponents’ weapons turn against them.  We don’t pretend that we know the answer when we don’t, but we can look for it and may even find it.  The creationist, on the other hand, already has an answer. He has no need to look, and will find out nothing.

Science feeds on unexplained facts as opportunity and challenge.  Science questions. Intelligent Design answers all questions.  Therefore Intelligent Design makes science unnecessary.  Is that what we want?

In discussion, I predicted that the case would be appealed all the way to the Supreme Court. I was wrong. Judge E. Jones III’s ruling is only binding in the middle district of Pennsylvania, but is such powerful opinion that it is unlikely to be challenged unless at some later date the US Supreme Court acquires a creationist majority.

An earlier version of this post appeared on 3 Quarks Daily

Meeting creationists on their own terms: understanding the Genesis flood

Maimonides said it best, over 800 years ago. The Divine Teaching is, of necessity, expressed in human language. We don’t believe that God has fingers and hands (Exodus, Isaiah, Psalms, Luke) or goes for walks in gardens (Genesis). I would add that no one takes the commandments in the Bible literally, and when Daesh comes close to following the rules of law laid down in Deuteronomy, we are quite properly appalled. All of this is familiar, but this piece combats biblical literalism on its own terms, shows how it is inseparable from interpretation, and thereby undermines its strongest attraction – the illusion of certainty.

The Logic of Science

In this post, I am going to do something highly atypical for a science blog: I am going to talk about theology. I want to be very clear about why I am doing this and why you should pay attention (regardless of your personal religious beliefs or lack thereof). I have spent a great deal of time talking to creationists, and what I have found is that most of them are concerned primarily with what the Bible says, and they only accept science when it happens to line up with their religious views. In other words, it’s not that the creationists are unintelligent, it’s simply that they have different priorities. As a result, if you initiate a conversation with creationists by talking about the science of evolution, you won’t get anywhere because they think that the science conflicts with their religion, but if you start by explaining why the science

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Exposing the Roots of Young Earth Creationism

Long but worth it. See in particular the section “Advice from a Former Young Earth Creationist”. This post exposes Young Earth Creationism as a 20th-century heresy, with sinful disregard for reality. It also considers from the inside (as I cannot) the claims Creationists make based on Christian faith, and dismantles them. Compare my own posts Biblical literalism as blasphemy and Anti-Creationists need to think about tactics, extensive writings by my friend the geologist historian priest Michael Roberts, at Peddling and Scaling  and elsewhere, and Numbers’ detailed scholarly analysis  The Creationists.

For my own blog, I’ve settled on Primate’s Progress as title; a clear favourite. Many thanks to those who shared your thoughts on the matter, here and elsewhere. H/t John Bunyan, of course, but I shall do my best to avoid the Slough of Despond.

Letters to Creationists


The Protestant consensus since the time of the Reformation has been that the physical universe and its history are real, not illusory. As God’s creation, the physical world conveys genuine information about the Creator and can serve to inform our interpretations of the Bible. Therefore, when geologists (many of them devout Christians) in the early 1800’s found that the rock layers showed the earth to be far older than the 6000 years derived from a literal reading of Genesis, Bible-believing Christians did not ignore, suppress, or lie about these findings. Rather, they adjusted their interpretation of the relevant Bible passages away from a simplistic literal reading, just as they had done 200 years earlier with the verses that depicted a stationary earth. Through about 1960, nearly all Christians, including conservative Old Testament scholars and most fundamentalists, were comfortable with interpretations of Genesis which accommodated an earth that was many…

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Biblical literalism as blasphemy

“[T]he book of nature, which we have to read, is written by the finger of God.” (Michael Faraday, On Mental Education)

If the biblical account of creation is literally true, then the creator is maliciously lying in the great book of nature, which plainly says otherwise. If it is not literally true, then literalists are in error in their hermeneutics. So literalists have a choice; admit their hermeneutics are mistaken, or call God a malicious liar.

I approach this entire area with diffidence. I was at one time a believer, but always regarded literalism as bone-headed on internal evidence (Maimonides, of course, had made the same point nearly 900 years ago). I am prompted to post this comment because believers whom I respect have found it helpful, and because I regard all those committed to accepting the evidence of things seen as natural allies, however much we may differ on things unseen. I therefore wish to distance myself from those, at both ends of the spectrum, who regard the most bone-headed versions of the Abrahamic religions as for that very reason the most authentic.

Both Faraday and Maxwell are invoked as believers in intelligent design by advocates of the degenerate doctrine that now goes by that name, but it is difficult to imagine a more profound misunderstanding. For more on Faraday’s views on natural law as God’s handiwork, and the distinct but overlapping views of James Clerk Maxwell, see here. From Maxwell, let me quote just this:

The rate of change of scientific hypothesis is naturally much more rapid than that of Biblical interpretations, so that if an interpretation is founded on such an hypothesis, it may help to keep the hypothesis above ground long after it ought to be buried and forgotten.

Or even, as in the case of the creationist’s “types”, lead to a hypothesis being resurrected in total defiance of the evidence.

Rebutting Creationism in Brazil

I have just found myself rebutting a Creationist engineering professor, on the Brazilian Air Force Academy’s cultural website.

“Scientific Creationism” is emerging as a problem in Latin America. As in the UK, it’s essentially a US evangelical import (recall that the Catholic Church accepts the historical fact of evolution). As creation-watchers may know, Henry Morris, widely regarded as the father of “Creation Science”, wrote its foundational work, The Genesis Flood,

File:The Genesis Flood.jpg

together with the theologian John C. Whitcomb, under the influence of the ideas of the Seventh-day Adventist, George McCready Price. So when the Brazilian Airforce Academy asked me to reply to an exposition of Creationism by Ruy Carlos de Camargo Vieira, Professor Emeritus of Electrical and Mechanical Engineering at the University of São Paulo and himself a convert to Seventh-day Adventism, I was very happy to do so. Here’s what I said:

Evolution is real science; creationism is fake philosophy

A reply to “O Evolucionismo e o Criacionismo à luz do Método Científico

Evolution is not an optional worldview but a fundamental scientific theory, and one of the most successful scientific theories of all time. Biblical creationism is not a worldview either, but a set of factually mistaken beliefs about the world and the Bible.

Prof Vieira argues that the present-day theory of evolution, and biblical creationism, are not in fact rival theories, but representations of differing untestable worldviews, and that the difference between them is philosophical rather than scientific. He is mistaken on every count. Evolution is a scientific theory, not only about the past, but about processes operating and observable in the present. It has made numerous successful predictions and passed many severe experimental tests. It explains facts that could not even have been imagined when, 150 years ago, the theory was put forward in its modern form. The creation story of Genesis can be tested against observation, and fails. It makes statements contrary to known fact, so that, however great its significance to us, we cannot regard it as an accurate historical narrative.

29+ Evidences for Macroevolution

The Scientific Case for Common Descent

Version 2.89

Prof Vieira claims that there is no scientific evidence for evolution. He is wrong. Two excellent books presenting this evidence, both available in Portuguese, are Your Inner Fish, by Neil Shubin, and Why Evolution is True by his colleague at the University of Chicago, Jerry Coyne. There is also an excellent on-line site, 29+ Evidences for Macroevolution, with hundreds of references to the primary literature, summarising the main arguments, and new findings supporting and illustrating the fact of evolution are reported every day.

Your Inner Fish      At the Water's Edge

Shubin’s book begins with a beautiful example of evolution as a predictive theory. Lower Devonian rocks contain no land vertebrates. Upper Devonian rocks contain plenty. Therefore evolution predicts that there should be fossil evidence for intermediate forms somewhere in the middle Devonian. The earliest known land vertebrates are amphibians, which would have required fresh water, and this and other detailed arguments suggested that rocks around 375 million years old, formed in river deltas, would be the best place to look. Prof Shubin and his colleagues mounted an expedition to a location in the Canadian Arctic where such rocks were exposed, and discovered the predicted intermediate form, a fish with a wrist, which they called Tiktaalik. Notice that if these rocks had shown a sudden transition without intermediates, or if they had been full of rabbits, dinosaurs, or fried chicken bones, this would have disproved the evolutionary account.

Coyne’s book lays out with great clarity the facts that are explained by evolution, all of them examples of the “evidências palpáveis [substantive evidence]” in support of evolution, “que possam ser submetidas ao escrutínio do Método Científico [that can undergo examination according to the Scientific Method]”, whose existence the learned Professor denies. These include (a) the way living things can be arranged in families on the basis of their anatomy, (b) copious fossil forms (of which Tiktaalik is one example) showing how different categorias biológicas  are descended from a common ancestry, (c) our knowledge of how new species arise (Prof Coyne is also an author of the more technical book Speciation), (d) the family trees deduced from DNA evidence, (e) the fact that these three independent methods – anatomical relationship, fossil record, and DNA comparison – give the same tree, or rather branching bush, of life, and (f) the examples of evolution that we see all around us. In addition (g), we can and do perform laboratory experiments that demonstrate and elucidate evolution, and (h) the whole of plant and animal breeding consists of evolutionary processes harnessed to our wishes, with artificial selection replacing natural selection.

Prof Veiera presents two kinds of reason for his claim that evolution is not science. One is the fact that it does not explain the origin of life, the Solar System, or the Universe. But this is no argument at all. Atomic theory does not explain the origin of atoms, the Solar System, or the Universe, but no one doubts that it is a scientific theory. The other one is that it does not explain the transformation of species and origin of new orders, as classified according to modern taxonomy. As we have seen, this is not true. Shubin’s book, for example, gives a very clear account of the origin of the transformation of fish to amphibians, and Carl Zimmer’s At the Water’s Edge describes the transformation of land mammals to whales. But even if it were true, a theory should not be rejected just because there are things we cannot yet explain. Unanswered questions are as essential to all kinds of science as unquestioned answers are to some kinds of religion.

The whale ancestor, Ambulocetus natans, (approximately 12 feet long, coastal habitat) , courtesy Thewissen Research Laboratory

Regarding biblical creationism, this does make some very precise and verifiable claims. It asserts, for example (Genesis 1:20 – 25), that birds and whales were created before land animals. Now we know that birds are descended from land dinosaurs, and that whales (free review article here; also Carl Zimmer’s book mentioned above) are descended from terrestrial mammals. So we must infer that if, as Prof Vieira believes, God is responsible for the content of Genesis 1, He did not intend it to be used as a biology textbook. I note in passing that many Christians, including Catholics, Episcopalians, and Methodists, have no problem with the fact of evolution, and that only extreme Evangelical groups, such as the Seventh Day Adventists to which Prof Veiera belongs, regard Genesis as a literal historical record.

Finally, does it matter? Yes, to Brazil’s past, present, and future. Regarding the past, the mineral wealth of Brazil can only be understood using genuine science, including evolution and its companion, deep-time geochemistry. For example, the banded iron-formations of the Quadrilátero Ferrífero in Minas Gerais owe their existence to the release of oxygen by photosynthesizing bacteria more than two billion years ago, and the oil and gas of the continental shelf were formed by the decay of ancient organisms in the Cretaceous. The present includes the responsibility of managing the Amazon basin, something that can only be done wisely by respecting the evolved relationships between its many species. And all of us will need real science, and a recognition of scientific reality, as humankind faces its troubling and unsettled future.

(Acknowledgements to Jerry Coyne, Neil Shubin, Douglas Theobald, Hans Thewissen, and Carl Zimmer, whose work I cite here)

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