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Why I do NOT “believe in Darwin’s theory of evolution”

File:Origin of Species title page.jpgFact not theory; 150 years on from Darwin’s watershed publication; evidence not belief. Words matter.

A recent Harris poll asked Americans “Do you believe in Darwin’s theory of evolution?” Others more eminent have commented on the answers; I would like to comment on the question.

Darwin, of course, never used the word “evolution,” but let that pass. As for the rest, it would be difficult to cram a larger number of serious errors into so small a space. Errors of presentation, of logic, and of scientific and historical fact, all of which play into the hands of our Creationist opponents.

Start with the obvious, the word “theory.” In common language a theory always involves speculation. 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 facts, except by appeal to the whims of the Creator.

Next “Darwin’s.” Darwin did indeed have a theory, as independently had Wallace, which was that different species had arisen gradually by natural selection operating on variation. This he supported by meticulous observation, but the range of evidence available to him was far more limited than what we have today. He lamented the poverty of the then known fossil record, laments that Creationists echo to this day as if nothing had changed. He knew nothing about mutations or even about the existence of specific genes, and so he had no idea how new variants could arise and spread. His assumption of gradualism is in contrast to later ideas such as punctuated equilibrium, and we now know that much if not indeed most variation arises through neutral drift. Thus not only do we know far more facts about evolution than Darwin could have dreamt of, but our theories, too, incorporate numerous additional concepts.

Finally, worst of all, “believe in.” 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.

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. They obsess about Darwin, referring to evolution as “Darwinism,” and to those who accept this reality as “Darwinists.” The aim here is to bypass 150 years of experimental and intellectual discoveries, to bog us down in the day disputes of the late 19th century, or even (“Darwin’s doubt,” see here and here) to enlist Darwin himself as an unwitting ally.  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 different views deserve a hearing.

Most people have not thought long and hard about evolution. And in the US at least, much of what they have heard about it will have come from its theologically motivated opponents. These opponents, whether through “statements of faith” that make obscurantism a virtue, or through “academic freedom bills” that disguise telling lies to children as open intellectual debate, use carefully crafted words to stake spurious claims to the moral high ground.

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

The Deep Roots of Intelligent Design Creationism (Pt II of Kelvin, Rutherford, and the Age of the Earth )

Conservative politician caught lying. Learning from creationists. And the origins of plate tectonics. Last November, creationist objectors in Texas tried yet again to sabotage the state’s textbook adoption process. One of the objections concerned the age of the Earth, using the long refuted cooling argument that goes back to Kelvin in the 1860s. An online conversation about the matter directed me to the real flaw in Kelvin’s reasoning, which is different from what I had believed (see my earlier posting). Further digging led me to the oldest formulation I know of Intelligent Design (ID) creationism (of course, it was not called that, but “Unsolved Problems of Science”. Now over a century old, it already shows the key features of “modern” ID, even down to the link with conservative politics, and the despicable misuse of fraudulently edited quotations. Kelvin’s reasoning was based on a very simple physical model, heat flow from a solid sphere initially at uniform high temperature. This model, and estimates of the rate of heat flow and temperature gradient, led him to assign a maximum age of a mere hundred million years, with the most probable age around a quarter of that. And yet the argument from radiometric dating, something with which Kelvin himself was never happy, gives overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Rutherford, and everyone else for decades afterwards, thought that Kelvin’s error lay in the neglect of the heat generated within the earth by radioactive decay itself. Actually, it is a mistake to imagine that radioactive heating has all that much to do with it, and I must confess to having repeated this mistake many times in my own teaching and writing. The real error (details here and in Pt I)had been pointed out a decade before Rutherford confronted Kelvin at the Royal Institution, and three years before radioactivity had even been discovered. Kelvin’s calculation only considered heat transfer by conduction, whereas convection from depth is far more important. Convection can efficiently transport heat over long distances. It would have brought far more to the surface than Kelvin’s model allowed for, meaning that it must have taken far longer to get rid of it. John Perry, one of Kelvin’s own former students, was sure that Kelvin’s estimate of the earth’s age was far too low, suggested that Kelvin could have drastically underestimated the efficiency of heat transfer, and even suggested that the Earth’s interior could be in a partly molten state, making convection possible. In this piece, I want to talk about two things, how I learned the error of my ways, and exactly what it was that goaded Perry into an uncharacteristic public quarrel with his former mentor. I will also very briefly discuss the enormous importance of mantle convection for the present-day science of geology. First, the question of John Perry’s timing. If Kelvin had been promoting his cooling argument since 1862, why did no one query his physical assumptions until Perry did so in 1894? The answer, according to the historian Brian Shipley (now Canadian consul in Minneapolis), lies more in the domain of politics than of science.

The hall of Christ Church, Oxford, where Salisbury was awarded an honorary 4th class degree in mathematics (Public domain, through Wikipedia)

In the late 19th century, the annual meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science was an event of major importance. Presidential addresses had been given by Kelvin, by T. H. Huxley, and in 1892 by Sir Archibald Geikie, the most eminent British geologist of the time. In his address, Geikie tactfully thanked Kelvin for bringing physics to bear on the problems of geology, and for pointing out that thismeant that the earth could not be indefintley old as the geologists of half a century earlier had imagined. Nonetheless, he insisted that the Earth had to be much older than Kelvin would admit, and that therefore there must be some flaw, yet to be discovered, in Kelvin’s reasoning. In 1894, the Association met in Oxford. The Presidential Address was in part a response to Geikie. It was given by Lord Salisbury, a senior Conservative politician, who would be responsible for the Boer War among other things, and was the last Prime Minister to run his administrations from the House of Lords. Salisbury was extremely pessimistic by temperament, believing that “Whatever happens will be for the worse, and therefore it is in our interest that as little should happen as possible.” It is not surprising, then, that he was unsympathetic to the idea of evolution. Some of Salisbury’s remarks make one nostalgic for an earlier age, before the mid–20th century phenomenon of “scientific creationism”. “Few men”, he says, “are now influenced by the strange idea that questions of religious belief depend on the issues of physical research. Few men, whatever their creed, would now seek their geology in the books of their religion…”. Alas, this is exactly the way proponents of “creation science” would have us proceed, rejecting all evidence that cannot be fitted into a biblical framework. Salisbury also praises Darwin, and refers to the “lasting and unquestioned effect” of his work in disposing of the doctrine of the immutability of species, so that “Few are now found to doubt that animals separated by differences far exceeding those that distinguished what we know as species have yet descended from common ancestors.” But it is all downhill from there. File:Robert Arthur Talbot Gascoyne-Cecil, Vanity Fair, 1900-12-20.jpg

Salisbury, caricatured by Spy for Vanity Fair, 1900

 Salisbury accepts Kelvin’s estimates for the rate at which the Earth is cooling, asserts that according to these estimates organic life could not have existed on the Earth as it was 100 million years ago, and contrasts this with the requirements of the geologists and biologists, and “the prodigality of ciphers [zeroes] which they put at the end of the earth’s hypothetical life.” Natural selection demands well over a hundred million years; but according to the physicists, if the Earth even existed that far back in time it would have been so hot that all living things would have been vaporized. Faced with this disagreement, Salisbury proclaims himself neutral, but there is no doubt who he is neutral for. He puts forward various arguments from ignorance, which had more weight then than when creationists repeat them now. He also puts forward plausible arguments based on the improbability of matings between animals carrying favoured new variations. Those arguments were wrong, but this was not shown convincingly until the 1920s, with the development of statistical genetics, so we can forgive him. He also links the popularity of evolutionary thinking to Darwin’s own personality, and to disputes outside the domain of science itself, and predicts its decline. These themes, also, continue to resonate in the ID and other creationist literature. But, to be fair, they may have had more force at the time than they do now, more than a century later. What cannot be forgiven, however, is Salisbury’s editing, truncating, and reassembling quotations in such a way as to completely distort the meaning. This is a serious charge, and therefore requires detailed evidence. I can only apologise for the amount of space necessary for this. Distortion provides the basis for Salisbury’s most seemingly conclusive argument, which is philosophical, and hinges on an alleged quotation from a paper by the evolutionary scientist Weismann. The same Weismann to whom we owe our clear distinction between inheritance and development, genotype and phenotype. The relevant article, Contemporary Review, 1893, 64, 309-338, is titled “The All-Sufficiency of Natural Selection”, and Salisbury quotes from it as follows:

We accept natural selection, not because we are able to demonstrate the process in detail, not even because we can read more or less easily imagine it, but simply because we must – because it is the only possible explanation that we can conceive. We must assume natural selection to be the principle of the explanation of the metamorphoses, because all other apparent principles of explanation fail us, and it is inconceivable that there could yet be another capable of explaining the adaptation of organisms without assuming the help of a principle of design.

This, Salisbury would have us believe, demonstrates the ultimate bankruptcy of evolutionary theory. Invoking a principle of design is simply declared illegitimate, by arbitrary decree, so that natural selection can be accepted on faith. Wrenched from their context, Weismann’s words are paraded as evidence that evolution rests on assumptions as arbitrary as those of any religion. We are in the quote mine, territory all too familiar to students of creationism. Weismann is rebuked for dismissing “the help of a principle of design,” and thereby excluding the mood of explanation that now goes by the name of “Intelligent Design theory.” But that has absolutely nothing to do with what Weismann is actually talking about. Salisbury is neglecting context. Weismann is arguing, very specifically, with Herbert Spencer. What is at stake is not whether evolution occurs buthow it occurs, whether adaptations emerge within individuals through usage as organisms develop and live out their lives, or whether it occurs, as Weismann is correctly arguing, through selection between individuals. Actually, it’s worse. The two sentences that Salisbury runs together do not even belong together. Both sentences in the purported quotation come from Weismann’s article. The text of the second sentence, slightly longer than Salisbury’s version, is on p. 328. The first comes from considerably later on in the article, p.336, and the passage reads in full:

We accept it [natural selection], not because we are able to demonstrate the process in detail, not even because we can read more or less easily imagine it, but simply because we must – because it is the only possible explanation that we can conceive. For there are only two possible a priori explanations of adaptations for the naturalist – namely, the transmission of functional adaptations [as Weismann termed acquired characters] and natural selection; but as the first of these can be excluded, only the second remains.

In other words, Weismann and Spencer are already agreed on seeking naturalistic explanations, so that the question of a “principle of design” is not even under active consideration. Weismann, in the course of some 30 densely argued pages, is considering the competing explanations of evolved adaptedness, and makes his point by discussing how sterile worker insects come to be adapted to their way of life. He argues that only two such explanations are possible, namely the inheritance of acquired characters, and natural selection. But sterile workers cannot transmit acquired characters to their offspring, because they have none. Therefore the correct explanation must be natural selection; in this case selection for the ability to give rise to effective worker offspring. Weismann is not invoking extra-scientific arguments to exclude design; he is talking about something different altogether. Salisbury’s reading of Weismann is a contrived and unnatural distortion, made possible only by juxtaposing sentences that do not even belong on the same page, and in the wrong order to boot. Having misrepresented Weismann as an unwitting ally, Salisbury concludes his attack on evolution by natural selection with a quotation from Kelvin’s presidential address of 1871:

I have always felt that the hypothesis of natural selection does not contain the true theory of evolution, if evolution has been in biology…. I feel profoundly convinced that the argument of design has been greatly too much lost sight of in recent zoological speculations. Overpoweringly strong proofs of intelligent and benevolent design lie around us, and if ever perplexities, whether metaphysical or scientific, turn us away from them for a time, they come back upon us with irresistible force, showing us through Nature the influence of a free will, and teaching us that all living things depend on one everlasting [ever-acting?] Creator and Ruler.

I very much doubt if Perry had been following the lengthy and complex debate between Spencer and Weismann on the mechanism of evolution, but he would certainly have known of the various methods, such as the thickness of sediments, that geologists at that time were using to estimate the age of the Earth. To him, Kelvin’s much less generous estimate was the anomaly, and, when this estimate was invoked by someone of Salisbury’s eminence for semi-religious or even political purposes, that was enough to goad him into action. I found out about this all rather indirectly. As I admitted in my last post, one of my many vices is commenting in online forums. So when Jerry Coyne’s website, Why Evolution Is True, asked what cooling had to do with last November’s Texas textbook adoption drama, I wrote a comment that mentioned Kelvin and Rutherford. I also gave there, as an example of creationist absurdity, an alleged repudiation of Rutherford in a 1978 Institute for Creation Research pamphlet by Harold Slusher and T. P. Gamwell, cited by Bob Jones University. Just to be safe, I did a Google search on Slusher and Gamwell, and the only appraisal I could find dismissed their work, on the grounds that it had considered diffusion of heat across a plane surface, rather than the surface of a sphere. Reality, as always, is more interesting. My comment got a rejoinder from one Robert Seidel, who pointed out to me the paper by Englander and colleagues that I discussed on my last post. This, based on current estimates of radioactive heating, actually confirms Slusher and Gamwell’s conclusion, and in correspondence Englander told me that the difference between a plane and a sphere is quite unimportant in this context, since conductive cooling would only have penetrated in 5 billion years to one tenth of the Earth’s radius. But none of this really matters in the great scheme of things, because Kelvin’s argument, as we saw before, is swept aside by mantle convection. Conclusions: never take a quotation from a real scientist in a creationist text at face value. Strange things happen in the quote mine, as we have seen. But on the other hand, just because an argument refutes creationism, that doesn’t always mean it’s right. Just because an argument is used to support creationism, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s wrong; quite probably, as in the Slusher and Gamwell case, it’s simply irrelevant. And just because something is said by creationists, that doesn’t mean there’s nothing to be learned from it. “Learn even from your enemies”, said Ovid, and he was right.

HolmesCropped2r A quick afterword (a complete afterword would invoke a large part of all geological studies for the past 40 years): by around 1930 it had become clear, from how the shockwaves caused by earthquakes travel, that the solid crust of the Earth floats on a viscous fluid, the mantle. Arthur Holmes, the most farsighted physical geologist of his generation, realised that this would imply mantle convection. He spelt out some of the implications of this in a remarkable paper in Transactions of the Geological Society of Glasgow. Heat would build up (see thumbnail) beneath over-large continents, attracting upward convective flow which would eventually tear them apart. New basaltic crust would appear at such separation zones, while old crust would disappear in regions of downward flow. Thus for the continents to move it it would not be necessary for them to force their way through basement rock, an obvious physical impossibility, but merely to ride on that moving basement like luggage on a conveyor belt. To use the language adopted a full generation later, when these ideas at last gained general acceptance, Holmes was describing rifting, subduction, and plate tectonics.  An earlier version of this post appeared in 3 Quarks Daily. I thank Philip England, Philip Kitcher, Peter Molnar, Brian Shipley, and one Robert Seidel (if you see this, Robert, please identify yourself so I’ll know just who to thank) for helpful discussions. I wrote to Prof Dan Olinger of Bob Jones University regarding his University’s portrayal of the Earth’s age in December 2013. He assured me that his colleagues would reply to my questions, but they have not yet done so.

Darwin, Agassiz, and Global Warming; The Case of the Vanishing Lake

Darwin thought the parallel “Roads” of Glen Roy represented vanished marine shorelines, one above the other as the result of vertical movement. Agassizexplained them, rather, as successive shorelines of a glacial lake, now vanished because the retaining glacier has melted away. If so, and if global warming is real, we might expect to see vanishing lakes today, as the glaciers retreat. We can, and we do, as a recent blog post by my friend Peter Hess explains.

Glen Roy is a valley in the Western Scottish Highlands, just south of the Great Glen (home to Loch Ness), and draining through Glen Spean to Loch Linnhe, an inlet of the Atlantic. It is remarkable for the presence of the Roads, a series of parallel, almost horizontal, grooves in the hills on the sides of the glen. Clearly shorelines; but of what body of water? And why are there more than one of them?

From Darwin, C. R. 1839. Observations on the parallel roads of Glen Roy, and of other parts of Lochaber in Scotland, with an attempt to prove that they are of marine origin.  Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society 129: 39-81, through Darwin Online

Charles Darwin visited the area in 1838, two years after his return from his round the world voyage on the Beagle. During that voyage, he had examined the geology as well as the plants and animals of the places he visited, and among them was the coastal area of Chile. This is marked by raised beaches inland where once had been shoreline, and Darwin correctly described these as the effects of uplift, which we now know to be driven by plate tectonics. So it was natural thatDarwin should have applied a similar explanation to the Roads, suggesting that the Cairngorms, like the Andes, were a zone of uplift, and that the Roads were ancient beaches of the Atlantic, now some ten miles away. The alternative theory, that they represented shorelines of an ancient lake, ran up against a seemingly conclusive objection; such a lake could only have formed if there had been a barrier across the valley, but there was no trace of this.Only a year later, shortly after going public with his Ice Age theory, the naturalist Louis Agassiz visited the area. In the Highlands he found plenty of evidence to support his idea; scratches on bedrock caused by the passage of glaciers, erratics (boulders far from their parent rock formations), and moraines (piles of rock rubble that had been carried by glaciers, left in place when the glacier melted). He considered the Roads further evidence of this; yes, there had been a lake, and yes, the roads did represent the shorelines at different times, carved into the sides of the valley by fierce freeze-thaw cycles. As for the barriers holding the lake in place at different levels over the course of time, they were a series of long vanished glaciers.

We now know that Agassiz was basically correct, although we now speak of a series of glaciations rather than a single Ice Age, and although Darwin was right in this; that the area has in addition experienced uplift, as the weight of ice above it has melted away.

Later Darwin was to write of this as his greatest blunder, describing in his Autobiography how in Wales he had missed the evidence of glaciation all around him, and generously acknowledging Agassiz for having come up with the correct explanation.

Agassiz rejected Darwin’s concept of evolution when it was published twenty years later because he believed in the fixity of species, but this does not seem to have diminished Darwin’s respect for him. What is now nothing but a deliberately cultivated ignorance was then, with so much less evidence available, no more than an understandable conservatism.

The overflow channel through which the vanished Loch Roy must have drained can still be detected as an abrupt narrow valley in the surrounding hillsides. The draining of the vanished lake in South America sent a surge through its own channel, down Chile’s main river, and caused giant waves as far as the Pacific Ocean, 60 miles away.

Lake to sandy valley overnight (from Peter Hess posting on NCSE blog site)

The glaciers of Switzerland are receding. Those of the southern Andes are receding even faster. Since Agassiz and Darwin examine the roads of Glen Roy, the earth’s mean surface temperature has increased by roughly 1oC, with another 0.5oC in the pipeline even if emissions were to be stabilised at the same levels as in the year 2000.

Which, of course, they won’t be.

Creationism As Conspiracy Theory – The Case Of The Peppered Moth

Originally posted on 3 Quarks Daily on August 12 2013; on that same day, a school board member in Nebraska used slides of Well’s Icons of Evolution to argue that the school should teach “the evidence for and against neo-Darwinian evolution;” details here and here.



Comparison of carbonaria and typica mounted against post-industrial treetrunk, 2006. Licenced under GFDL by
the author, Martinowski at nl.wikipedia. [Click image to enlarge.]


The peppered mothprovides a textbook example of industrial melanism and its reversal. Once a classroom classic, then much criticised, and finally rehabilitated through further observation, the story also shows how real science works. The response of the creationist and “Intelligent Design” community provides a textbook example of a conspiracy theory in action, with cherry-picked quotations, allegations of collusion and fraud, and refusal to acknowledge new evidence.

This moth comes in two main varieties, mottled pale (typica), and dark-coloured (carbonaria). The dark form was first noticed, as a rarety, in 1848. Then came widescale industrialisation and grime. By 1895, 98% of the peppered moths in Manchester were dark, and in 1896 Read the rest of this entry

“Intelligible Design” or Intelligent Design or Creationism; what is World Scientific playing at?

[Disclosure: World Scientific published my own first non-technical book, From Stars to Stalagmites, in 2012.]

Update July 23: this book has been absent for a week from the WSPC web site. I am told that the matter is under consideration by WSPC management. In the circumstances, I have taken down my posts on the subject, and hope not to have to reinstate them.

Update July 29: World Scientific asked me for a full review of the book. I have sent it to them, with a cover note saying that I hope never to have occasion to publish it. All that fine invective, never to see the light of day! But fair’s fair.

Update Sept 27; It’s back on the menu. Too puerile to require rebuttal, too insignificant to be worth publicising by protest. So I’ll leave it at that, and simply bear in mind that World Scientific’s imprimatur is now worthless.

The Creationist Obsession with Darwin; from Louisiana to Discovery Institute to Glasgow

From Louisiana through the Discovery Institute to Glasgow, examples of the creationist obsession with Darwin (and inability to quote him correctly) continue to accumulate.

You may have heard of the Louisiana Science Education Act (how’s that for protective colouring?), which allows creationism to be taught in the State’s publicly funded schools in the name of “academic freedom.” The law was apparently suggested to State Senator Ben Nevers by the Lousiana Family Forum, whose upcoming Leadership Academy, to be addressed by Governor Bobby Jindal, promises to “teach you how to defend Conservative principles within policy!” (Exclamation mark in original. I set the last two links at “No-Follow”)

And now here’s the bit that’s relevant to my theme, courtesy Zack Kopplin. To quote Sen. Nevers, the Louisiana Family Forum “believe that scientific data related to creationism should be discussed when dealing with Darwin’s theory.” So there are scientific data relevant to creationism (what, I wonder?), but a century and a half of evolutionary science are merely “Darwin’s theory”. As in, the Earth goes round the Sun in an elliptical orbit is “Kepler’s theory”, and stuff is made out of atoms is “Dalton’s theory”.

Stephen Meyers’ Darwin’s Doubt uses similar tactics, from the title on in. The contents give us three references to Darwin in its 23 chapter and section headings; “Darwin’s Nemesis”, “After Darwin, What?”, and “The Post-Darwinian World and Self-Organisation”. Darwin’s name also occurs seven times on the book’s front flap. This (free view on Amazon) presents one short argument, to introduce one very long book, based on compressing the Ediacaran and Cambrian radiations, ignoring everything we know about the events leading up to them (see Robert Hazen’s Story of Earth for a good brief overview), and comparing the resulting mystification with the problem of the origin of life. The index gives ten subheadings and 21 page references for Darwin, and sixteen subheadings and 43 page references to “Darwinian evolutionary theory”. These include six to “Agassiz’ challenge”; that’s Louis Agassiz, who was generously acknowledged by Darwin for his discovery of the Ice Ages, and died 1873. And I nearly forgot: twentysix subheadings and 38 page references for “neo-Darwinism”.  For comparison, Carl Zimmer and Douglas J. Emlen’s Evolution; Making Sense of Life (one of the few textbooks I have come across that is actually a pleasure to read) has 16 subheadings and 33 page references to Darwin. And for “Darwin’s theory”, “Darwinian theory”, or “neo-Darwinism”? None at all. Indeed, I cannot recall when I last came across those expressions, other than from a historian or a creationist.

And of course Glasgow’s own Centre for Intelligent Design, a Discovery Institute echo chamber, has done its poor best to support Stephen Meyer. How? By mangling Darwin to totally shift his emphasis, and refocus it on Meyer’s chosen pseudoproblem. You will find the full gory details here on my friend Robert Saunders’ blog, Wonderful Life. There is also more about Meyer’s book on the BCSE website; I discussed it here, but think Nick Matzke’s dismemberment may be impossible to improve on. Disclosure: I lectured about “Dalton’s theory”, though I didn’t call it that, to Alastair Noble, now the Centre’s Director, many years ago. I like to think my teaching has improved since then. But at least I wasn’t responsible for teaching him about biology, or geology, or complex systems theory, or elementary logic, so perhaps I shouldn’t blame myself too much for what he’s been up to since.

Don’t say Darwin unless you mean it

Don’t say “Darwin” when you mean “evolution”. It’s about as useful as saying “Dalton” when you mean atoms. Our understanding of atoms has moved on enormously since Dalton’s time, and our understanding of evolution has moved on similarly since Darwin’s. Neither of them knew, or could have known, the first thing regarding what they were talking about, and both would be delighted at how thoroughly their own work has been superseded.

Dalton didn’t know anything about the forces that hold atoms together, which depend on electrons and quantum mechanics. In fact, he didn’t even know about electrons. Darwin was equally ignorant about the nature of biological novelty, which comes from mutating genes. In fact, he didn’t even know about genes. Chemistry has advanced enormously since Dalton, just as biology has advanced enormously since Darwin, although atoms remain central to chemistry in much the same way that evolution remains central to biology.
Darwin's Doubt

So why is discussion of evolution still saturated with Darwin’s name? In part, I think, because that’s the way the opponents of evolution want it. By identifying evolution with Darwin, they continue to breathe life into the controversies of the mid-19th century. At the same time, it helps them pretend that modern biology is just one individual’s point of view, rather than a mature science based on the work of thousands of investigators. Very recently, creationists have taken to invoking Darwin himself for their cause, in such titles as Darwin’s Doubt and Darwin Strikes Back. This is an extremely powerful rhetorical tool; if even Darwin was puzzled by [whatever], surely we “Darwinians” should be too. Closely related is the device of presenting creationism under the guise of even-handed debate, as when a creationist pseudo-textbook (which mentions Darwin on almost every page, but not in the index) calls itself Explore Evolution; the arguments for and against neo-Darwinism, or in the list below, where a creationist comic goes by the name, What’s Darwin got to do with it? A friendly discussion …

And while we’re on the subject of unhelpful language, don’t say “theory of evolution” when you mean the well-established facts of historical and continuing change over time, and of common ancestry. And if you find yourself in the position of explain the difference between a scientific theory (coherent intellectual structure developed to explain a range of observations), and the use of the word “theory” in everyday use (provisional hypothesis), you have blundered into a morass. Back out again.

But back to Darwin. You can see what I mean if you just look at the names of the books written by the new enemies of scientific biology, from Darwin’s Doubt (Meyer, 2013) all the way back to Darwin’s Black Box (Behe, 1996) and beyond. This week I came across further examples, The Darwin Conspiracy (Roy Davies, 2006), which portrays Darwin as a plagiarist, and, while checking its details, an even more lurid book of the same name by John Darnton, which portrays him as a murderer. To be fair, Darnton does not pretend that he is writing anything other than fiction, although surely he was writing with half an eye on the creationist market.

To test my idea, I went online to, and typed “Darwin” and “Darwinism” in the search window. Here are some of the books by creationists that I came up with; a lot of the names were all too familiar, but I never realized that Rick Santorum had actually got his name on a book:

Darwin’s Doubt (Meyer, 2013)

Dehumanization: A Product of Darwinism (David Campbell, 2012)

How We Got Swindled By Wall Street Godfathers, Greed & Financial Darwinism (E. Henry Schoenberger and David Satterfield, 2011)

Evolution by Intelligent Design: Debate is Over – Darwinism is Extinct (Gabor Lingauer, 2011)

Exposing Darwinism’s Weakest Link: Why Evolution Can’t Explain Human Existence (Kenneth Poppe, 2008)

Explore Evolution: The Arguments For and Against Neo-Darwinism, (Stephen C. Meyer, Scott Minnich, Jonathan Moneymaker and Paul A. Nelson, 2007)

The Edge of Evolution: The Search for the Limits of Darwinism (Michael Behe, 2007); Since Behe clearly believes that biological complexity is the work of a designer who operates independently of natural laws, I include Behe as a creationist, although he would deny this)

Darwin Day In America: How Our Politics and Culture Have Been Dehumanized in the Name of Science  John G. West, 2007)

Doubts About Darwin: A History of Intelligent Design (Thomas Woodward, 2007)

Darwin’s Nemesis: Phillip Johnson and the Intelligent Design Movement (William A. Dembski and Rick Santorum, 2006)

Darwin Strikes Back: Defending the Science of Intelligent Design (Thomas Woodward and William Dembski , 2006)

The Politically Incorrect Guide to Darwinism and Intelligent Design (Jonathan Wells, 2006)

Reclaiming Science from Darwinism: A Clear Understanding of Creation, Evolution, and Intelligent Design, (Kenneth Poppe, 2006)

The Naked Emperor: Darwinism Exposed (Antony Latham, 2005)


Uncommon Dissent: Intellectuals Who Find Darwinism Unconvincing (William A. Dembski, 2004)

Darwinism, Design and Public Education (John Angus Campbell and Stephen C. Meyer, 2003)

Darwinism and the Rise of Degenerate Science (Paul Back, 2003)

The Collapse of Darwinism: Or The Rise of a Realist Theory of Life (Graeme D. Snooks, 2003)

Human Devolution: A Vedic Alternative to Darwin’s Theory (Michael A. Cremo, 2003)

The Case Against Darwin: Why the Evidence Should Be Examined (James Perloff, 2002)

Moral Darwinism: How We Became Hedonists (Benjamin Wiker and William Dembski (Jul 12, 2002)

Darwinism Under The Microscope: How recent scientific evidence points to divine design (James P. Gills, 2002)

Shattering the Myths of Darwinism (Richard Milton, 2000)

What’s Darwin Got to Do with It?: A Friendly Discussion About Evolution (Robert C. Newman, John L. Wiester and Janet Moneymaker, 2000)

Darwinism Defeated? (J. I. Packer, Phillip E. Johnson and Denis O. Lamoureux, 1999) (Lamoureux says no, by the way)

Evolution Deceit: The Scientific Collapse of Darwinism (Harun Yahya and Mustapha Ahmad, 1999)

Tornado in a Junkyard: The Relentless Myth of Darwinism (James Perloff, 1999)

Defeating Darwinism by Opening Minds (Phillip E. Johnson, 1997)

Darwin’s Black Box (Michael Behe, 1996)

Darwinism, Science or Philosophy? (Phillip E. Johnson et al., 1994)

Darwin on Trial (Phillip E. Johnson, 1991)

Darwinism : The Refutation of a Myth (Soren Lovtrup, 1987)

There are also references to  “materialist neo-Darwinism”, but since I don’t pretend to know what a “materialist” is, and whether I or for that matter Darwin would qualify, I decided to let that go.

And so on, all the way back to The Refutation of Darwinism: And the Converse Theory of Development; Based … Upon Darwin’s Facts, (T Warren O’Neill, pre-1923)

Discovery Institute’s vanity press style promotion of Stephen Meyer’s latest

Tuesday saw the launch of Stephen Meyer’s latest book, Darwin’s Doubt. I doubt if I will be reading it, but here’s a little of what the blurb on says about it:

In Darwin’s Doubt, Stephen C. Meyer tells the story of the mystery surrounding this [the Cambrian] explosion of animal life—a mystery that has intensified, not only because the expected ancestors of these animals have not been found, but because scientists have learned more about what it takes to construct an animal. During the last half century, biologists have come to appreciate the central importance of biological information—stored in DNA and elsewhere in cells—to building animal forms.

Expanding on the compelling case he presented in his last book, Signature in the Cell, Meyer argues that the origin of this information, as well as other mysterious features of the Cambrian event, are best explained by intelligent design, rather than purely undirected evolutionary processes.

So there you have it. Stephen Meyer is unaware of the roots, stretching back into the Ediacaran and beyond, of what he lumps in together with the Cambrian explosion. And he still doesn’t understand how evolving systems accumulate complexity, and thinks that saying an intelligence (or even an Intelligence) put it in there from the outside by unspecified means counts as an explanation. And of course, he uses the old old trick, which I have written about before, of bypassing our present-day understanding by linking the discussion back to Darwin.

The Discovery Institute also uses another old trick, which The Sensuous Curmugeon, much as I admire him, seems to have missed. Passing the hat round to buy publicity. The Curmudgeon writes:

Whenever a creationist’s book is trumpeted in a press release, we immediately consider it to be a candidate for our series on Self-Published Geniuses. That’s where we write about creationists and others who pay for press releases to promote vanity-published books about their imaginary discoveries and pseudo-science ravings.

But Meyer’s book doesn’t qualify for that list.

The Curmugeon is much too kind. Let me draw his attention to this, sent out by the Discovery Institute to its supporters (don’t ask me how I got hold of it, but I promise you it’s genuine, including emphasis and bullets):

As you know, we are hard at work, preparing the way for the release of Darwin’s Doubt with media projects, online and print advertising, radio interview campaigns, and more. Many have come alongside of us in supporting this project, and believe me, every bit helps in our goal of raising $50,000 to help promote this book.

All types of participation in this coordinated effort are vital to its success. Here are a few ways you can help:

Pre-order the book at [link in original], if you have not already done so.

Tell your friends and family about the book and encourage them to pre-order a copy.

Donate [link in original] to support the many ways we will be bringing attention to the book:

  • $35 will send the book to an opinion maker.
  • $100 will purchase an online advertising spot.
  • $150 will pay to set-up one radio interview for Stephen Meyer.
  • $400 will pay for the production of a podcast.
  • $2,000 will pay for the production of a promotional video short.

Thanks to a generous donor, every $2 we raise through this campaign will be matched by another $1. And, because of the donations already made and several offline donations, we now only need to raise about $27,500 to make our goal by the end of this month.

Please consider helping to pave the way for the release of Darwin’s Doubt by DONATING NOW [link in original].  With your help, this book will change the course of the origins debate for generations to come.

So now you know.

Bears, whales, God, Darwin, and Peter Hitchens (Part I)

Can bears turn into whales? Peter Hitchens (PH) asks this question in two successive instalments of an anti-evolution tirade of the kind that gives ignorance a bad name. Normally I would not have bothered with such nonsense, especially since Jerry Coyne at WEIT has already dismembered what with PH passes for reasoning in greater detail than it deserves. However, PH does raise an interesting question or two, and makes one assertion is so breathtaking in its combination of arrogance and ignorance that I cannot forbear from discussing it. Let me deal with these matters in turn.

The first question is, can bears turn into whales? The suggestion is based on a remark by Darwin, in the first edition of On the Origin of Species, which he dropped it in later editions as being too speculative. However, PH still chooses, over 150 years later, to cite it as evidence that Darwin’s whole research programme, and by implication the entire structure of the life sciences as they have developed since that time, is really very silly. As to why we all indulge in such silliness, PH’s answer, which I will analyse later, is as ridiculous as it is insulting.

The answer to the question, by the way, is no. Of course, no presently existing species is capable of evolving into another presently existing species, any more than PH is capable of evolving into his late lamented brother, nor would Darwin ever have suggested such a thing. If we rephrase the question a little more precisely, do bears and whales share a relatively recent common ancestor, the answer is still no. Bears do in fact share a relatively recent ancestor with seals and walruses, but their last common ancestor with whales was back in the Cretaceous.

The obvious question then arising is this: if whales are not related to bears then what are they related to? Forty years ago, we didn’t have a precise answer to that question. Now we do, and PH could have found it easy enough, just by looking up whale evolution in Wikipedia. And while PH is understandably concerned about erroneous assignments, since the only fossil he seems to know about is the Piltdown forgery, Wikipedia will also provide him with a list of 43 separate extinct families of precursors of modern whales. But perhaps PH is a Wikipedia snob, or perhaps these articles, replete as they are with terms like “artiodactyl” and “cladogram”, are above his technical reading level. In the latter case, I would refer him to an excellent National Geographic article; in the former to either of two recent but more technical reviews, here and here. I will be writing about whale evolution at much greater length elsewhere, showing as it does a beautiful coming together of three separate lines of evidence; from the fossil record sequence, from anatomical homologies, and from molecular phylogeny.

My point here is a rather obvious one. PH admits that he is ignorant about evolution. Nothing to be ashamed of there. After all, he is a busy man, and has his own priorities, and if he can’t find the time to learn what kind of place the natural world is, and how we fit into it, then that’s his own business. But what he should be most deeply ashamed of, is his decision to write, not once but twice, about such a subject without first bothering to inform himself.

Despite his self-proclaimed ignorance, PH claims to have penetrated the motivation of the scientific community in its acceptance of what he describes, in rather simplistic and old-fashioned language, as “the theory of evolution by natural selection.” What he tells us of this theory is that the motivation is fundamentally theological, or rather, anti-theological. To quote, “I will re-state it, yet again. It is that I am quite prepared to accept that it may be true, though I should personally be sorry if it turned out to be so, as its implication is plainly atheistical, and if its truth could be proved, then the truth of atheism could be proved. I believe that is its purpose, and that it is silly to pretend otherwise.” [My emphasis]

So this is a clear statement of what PH considers to be the purpose of the theory; not to make sense of nature, as we scientists pretend, but to prove the truth of atheism. Well, questions of motivation are always interesting, if difficult to settle, but in this particular case we happen to be in a position to decide the truth or otherwise of PH’s claims. The theory of evolution by natural selection was first clearly formulated by two separate individuals, initially working independently, Alfred Russel Wallace and Charles Darwin. We know a great deal, in both cases, about their attitudes to religion, and Darwin in particular has left us a detailed description of how his views changed over time, as a result in large part of the evidence that he collected while developing and testing his theory. Both these great scientists changed their opinions on religious and spiritual matters during their working lives. Neither developed their theories in pursuit of a theological agenda, and if they had done so, that would have amounted to professional malpractice. The reality is very different, much more interesting than anything PH could have imagined, and we will return to this in the next part.

Don’t say “Darwin” when you mean “evolution”. Part II, Naming and Framing

In Part I, I stated that if you equate evolution with Darwin, or, worse, if you describe our knowledge of evolution as “Darwin’s theory”, you are guilty of scientific, logical, historical, and pedagogic errors, and playing into the hands of the Creationists. Here I enlarge on these claims, and make recommendations about how best to describe both our own position, and that of our opponents.

Firstly, the historical. Darwin was well aware that his own achievements were part of a prolonged process (see Rebecca Stott’s outstanding recent book, Darwin’s Ghosts). After all, Alfred Russel Wallace had come up, quite independently, with the concept of natural selection, as perhaps did one or two other, more obscure, figures, while thinkers as diverse as Erasmus Darwin (Charles’s grandfather), Lamarck, and Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire had developed their own ideas about the mutability of species.

Secondly, the scientific and pedagogical. As I indicated in Part I, Darwin’s theory (as we can call it, in the framework of its own time) did not contain within it anything resembling our modern concepts of genetics and mutation, while the identification of DNA as the material depository of genetic information lay almost a century in the future. When we teach about evolution today, we can use 21st-century molecular biology as our starting point; or we can point to the rich detail of the fossil record as examined by present-day techniques (think how recently we learned about feathered dinosaurs); or we can do competently what Haeckel did rather incompetently, and trace common features of embryonic development. Or we can talk about the cases of evolution being studied in the laboratory, or about the diversification of fish species in the natural laboratories provided by the great lakes of Africa. These topics show a live and vibrant science, greatly extending the concepts of a century and a half ago.

Finally, and most importantly, the logical and the rhetorical. Those who succeed in framing the terms of debate will gain an enormous advantage, regardless of the actual merits of their position. Lakoff (Don’t Think an Elephant) analyses how effectively the American Right have used this strategy, and as the current presidential election shows, the American Right and Creationism are now closely intertwined.

Attaching a proper name to a viewpoint suggests that it is individual, rather than part of a consensus, and marks it as incomplete, if not indeed superseded. Thus we speak of a Marxist or Freudian interpretation of history and human behaviour, and of Newtonian physics in contrast to relativistic or quantum physics. From this it is but a short step to the use of a proper name to discredit a point of view, rather like the use of proper names by the early Church to label damnable heresies, or by the Communist Party of the Soviet Union to label equally damnable ideological deviations.

We can now understand the Creationists’ excessive, almost pathological, obsession with Darwin. Thus in the Creationist “supplementary textbook”, Explore Evolution, produced by the Discovery Institute and now being promoted by its satellites, I counted 29 occurrences of Darwin’s name or some variant of it within the 11 pages of the Introduction (but amazingly no reference to Darwin in the Index). Behe names his books Darwin’s Black Box and The Edge of Evolution …The Limits of Darwinism, Johnson calls his Darwin on Trial and Defeating Darwinism by Opening Minds, while Scotland’s own Antony Latham offers us The Naked Emperor: Darwinism Exposed.

I therefore propose what I might call the “Dalton test” for using Darwin’s name. If you were talking about chemistry rather than biology, would you mention Dalton? If not, why mention Darwin? When Darwin’s name is invoked in the context of history of ideas (Gould, Ever since Darwin; Darwin’s Ghosts, already mentioned), or as a deliberately provocative rhetorical device (Dennett, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea) this is obviously appropriate. When “Darwin” is used as lazy shorthand for evolutionary biology, it is not; and every time we do this, we play into the hands of our opponents.

Theory of evolution”, as a synonym for evolutionary science, is another expression to avoid. We are all familiar with the bogus argument that evolution is a theory, theories are uncertain, and therefore evolution is uncertain. We all know the refutation: that “theory” has a special meaning in science, but this logical rebuttal does not stop the argument from being used to great rhetorical effect. More fundamentally, the emphasis on theory does biology (and Darwin himself) far less than justice. The reason that Darwin is a major figure, while Wallace is not, despite independent discovery of the same central concept, is the depth of observational detail with which Darwin was able to support his insights.

There are also deeper reasons for avoiding the emphasis on “theory”. Strategically, it evokes a fortress mentality, as if evolutionary biology were under siege and the experimental evidence had been summoned to relieve it. Rhetorically, that is a losing posture. Pedagogically, it is equally mistaken. The development of evolutionary thought from Buffon to the present day is a beautiful example of how science works, with observations triggering ideas and those ideas raising new questions for observers. To place theory first as if observation came second (or even the other way round) is to miss the entire point.

Labelling is a two-way street, and we also need our own language to describe the opponents of evolution science. Let’s refer to all those who deny a common ancestry for complex organisms as Creationists, since they are postulating a separate creation for each separate kind.[1] I would also propose the broader blanket term Supernaturalist for anyone who claims that biology can never be explained by the ordinary laws of nature, since the intervention of an entity not constrained by these laws of nature is by definition supernatural. By this clear and rigorous definition, the website Uncommon Descent, while most revealingly claiming to serve the Intelligent Design community, is self-confessedly Creationist. All Creationists are Supernaturalists, but a few Supernaturalists (e.g. Michael Behe) are not Creationists. Creationist supporters of Intelligent Design tend to keep quiet about their Creationism, and to vociferously assert that Creationism and Intelligent Design are completely different concepts. However, least two of the three officers of Glasgow’s Centre for Intelligent Design (C4ID) are undoubtedly Creationists, as is Phillip Johnson, guiding spirit of the Discovery Institute, and many of that Institute’s Fellows including some that have visited the UK to take part in C4ID events, and Intelligent Design advocates should always be closely questioned as to their own views on common descent, and on the science that underlies it.

In conclusion, we must choose our own words, rather than letting our opponents choose our words for us, and those words should clearly label them for what they are.

As for Darwin, while giving him all due honour, we should make it clear that what we now possess is a much more complex and complete system than he could ever have imagined. There are the facts of evolution (the plural is important), and there are suggested theoretical explanations for these facts; together, these make up the present-day science of evolution. That is how it is, and that is how we should describe it.

[1] We should specify that this is how we are using the term, to pre-empt the deliberate confusion of this issue with such unrelated matters as the origin of life, or even of the Universe. And I specified complex organisms because some Creationists (see e.g. Explore Evolution) misuse genuine debate about hybridisation in the simplest life forms as cover for the doctrine of separate creation of kinds. Students of Creationism will recognise the term “kinds”, its role in the pseudoscience of Baraminology, and its relationship to Genesis 1:12-23.

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