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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.

 

Lichte_en_zwarte_versie_berkenspanner

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 it was first suggested that this was a camouflage effect; typica is well concealed against a pre-industrial treetrunk, with its mottling of lichen, but against a sooty background it is an obvious meal for any passing bird. J.B.S. Haldane, in 1924, applied his new methods of quantitative genetics to the speed of such changes, and inferred that carbonaria must have possessed something like 50% per generation advantage over its pallid competitor. An extreme case of Darwinian evolution.

(Let me define that term, since for their own reasons creationists habitually equate all modern biology with Darwin. Darwinian evolution requires just three components; inheritable variation within a population, competition between its members to survive and reproduce, and a difference in fitness between variants. Fitness, here, is simply the ability to survive and have offspring that are themselves fit. This then leads to the evolution of a population in which the variations that confer fitness have become more common. We now know, as Darwin did not, that the inheritable variation corresponds to differences in genes, and that mutations, arising from gene copying errors, give rise to an ongoing supply of new variations. That’s it.)

In the 1950s, Bernard Kettlewell, medical student turned naturalist, carried out a set of direct experiments to test the suggestion that industrial melanism was the result of selective predation. He released large numbers of moths, a mixture of typica and carbonaria, in both polluted and unpolluted woodlands. As expected if the predation-selection mechanism is operating, the survival rate was greater for typica in clean environments, while the opposite applied in environments that were polluted. Kettlewell then persuaded Niko Tinbergen to film the actual process in both kinds of environment. Tinbergen later shared the 1973 Nobel Prize for his work on supernormal stimuli (exaggerated forms preferred to the real ones), along with Konrad Lorentz (filial imprinting) and Karl von Frisch (bee signalling).

Subsequent decades saw the passage of clean air acts, the washing clean of trees by unpolluted rainwater and the return of lichens, and a recovery of the numbers of typica at the expense of carbonaria.

So here we had the clearest possible example of Darwinian evolution in action. Variation dependent on a single gene; a selection pressure, namely predation by birds; an evolved response, namely camouflage; and a change in the direction of evolution with circumstances as camouflage favoured first one variant, then the other. Or so it seemed.

There were, however, a number of detailed problems. Kettlewell had estimated the degree of camouflage by looking at moths pinned against tree trunks, and reports of his work used photographs of these to illustrate the point. However, peppered moths only rest on trunks about a quarter of the time, preferring the underside of branches. More seriously, his work had involved the daily release of unrealistically large numbers of moths, and this may have given an exaggerated impression of the degree of selection. Faced with an abundance of targets, birds might satiate themselves on the most visible, while at realistic abundances they would have been forced to look more closely. All these points and more were made forcefully in the book Melanism; Evolution in Action, by Michael Majerus, who nonetheless concluded that they did not undermine Kettlewell’s conclusion: “Differential bird predation of the typica  and carbonaria forms, in habitats affected by industrial pollution to different degrees, is the primary influence on the evolution of melanism in the peppered moth.”

Majerus had a lifelong interest in lepidoptera, having caught his first butterfly at age 4, and built a moth trap when he was nine. At the time of his early death from mesothelioma, he was Professor of Ecology at Cambridge, and had just completed a lengthy experiment designed to overcome the shortcomings of Kettlewell’s studies. Lengthy, since only a few moths could be released on any one day, in order to keep their numbers within realistic limits. In accordance with his wishes, his posthumous website links to a Darwin Day 2004 lecture in which he defends Kettlewell’s work and outlines the projected research, and to his 2007 presentation at an international conference of the results of that research. A consortium of his colleagues later wrote up these results as a formal publication.

Majerus’ Melanism was the subject of an extraordinary review in Nature by Jerry Coyne, professor at Chicago, which focused almost entirely on its criticisms of Kettlewell, reinforced by Coyne’s own scrutiny of Kettlewell’s original papers. Clearly shaken by their shortcomings, Coyne described the case of the peppered moth as “in bad shape” concluded that the peppered moth “shows the footprint of natural selection, but we have not yet seen the feet”, so that “for the time being we must discard it as a well-understood example of evolution in action”, and even compared his disillusion to his learning that Christmas presents came from his parents, not Santa. Notice how different Coyne’s evaluation is from that in the book itself, where Majerus had reaffirmed Kettlewell’s basic conclusions. Majerus had been studying moths since childhood. Coyne’s main research focus has been on fruit flies, but this has also included studies of populations in the field. So as to why Coyne’s judgment of Kettlewell is so much sterner than Majerus’, we can only speculate. Coyne is now best known to the general public for his excellent book Why Evolution is True, and runs a highly enjoyable blog of the same name, noted for the forcefulness with which he expresses his opinions.

Majerus was not alone in commenting on the gap between Coyne’s review and its subject. But the damage had been done. A review in Nature attracts a lot more attention than a feisty blog posting, and in this case it triggered a series of sensational headlines ranging from Staple of evolutionary teaching may not be a textbook case to The moth that failed (both in The New York Times) Darwinism in a flutter (Guardian), and Scientists pick holes in Darwin moth theory (Sunday Telegraph).

It gets worse. It is a small step from allegations of incompetence to suggestions of fraud, and that step is taken in Judith Hooper’s Of Moths and Men. Hooper is a journalist, who at one time worked for the science popularizing magazine Omni. In her acknowledgements, she says Majerus “spent hours teaching me engagingly about peppered moths”. For his part, Majerus in his Darwin day lecture describes her book as “littered with errors, misrepresentations, misinterpretations and falsehoods”.

Still, journalism is ephemeral. Its simplifications and exaggerations are soon forgotten, and Hooper’s book can now be bought online for pennies plus postage. Much more serious is the use made of the case by creationists, and most notably by Jonathan Wells in his 2000 book, Icons of Evolution; Science or Myth?, which has itself become an icon of creationism, the essay, Survival of the Fakest, that summarises it.

If Hooper gives us a single accusation of fraud, Wells offers us an entire conspiracy theory. He claims to have discovered the conspiracy by critically examining anomalies in his textbooks, late in his PhD. If so, he was merely finding what he was already looking for. He was, and I presume still is, a member of Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church (the “Moonies”), and explains to his Church family that he did this PhD the better to undermine the established science: “Father’s [Sun Myung Moon’s] words, my studies, and my prayers convinced me that I should devote my life to destroying Darwinism.” 

Wells’s technique is to examine a selected group of textbook illustrations of evolution (the “icons”), criticise them on at times extremely tenuous evidence, and transform these criticisms into claims that the science being illustrated is itself known to be unsound. (As we shall see, the rejection of this line of reasoning is then used as further evidence of a cover-up.) Here I limit myself to the chapter on peppered moths, where the complaint is that the moths are portrayed hand mounted rather than naturally nested, and on the trunks of trees rather than on the boughs. “Nothing a little glue can’t fix”, says the essay sub-title, while according to the book, “The most serious [flaw] is that peppered moths in the wild don’t even rest on tree trunks. The textbook photographs, it turns out, have been staged.”

There was nothing new in any of this. Majerus had raised the same issues in his book, and dealt with them. Peppered moths do in fact rest on tree trunks, albeit only part of the time. But all of that is immaterial. Moths nesting naturally on branches show the same camouflage effects as staged images on the trunk (such as the one I have used here), and Majerus’ field photos prove it. Not only had he anticipated Wells’s “most serious” complaint, but he had shown that it made no difference to the science. And Wells includes Majerus’ book in his bibliography.

In public correspondence, Wells expresses himself as follows: “people like Majerus and Miller continue to deceive the public”, “Fraud is fraud”, “lying to biology students”, “scandalous”. In Wells’s opinion, “the peppered myth and its staged photographs should be abandoned, because they misrepresent the truth.” [Emphasis added] This although Majerus in his book had used only realistic and unstaged photographs, had devoted many pages to the moths’ natural choice of nesting place, had been highly critical in his discussion of Kettlewell’s work, and had spelt out what further research was still needed. All that Wells can see is an ongoing conspiracy to misinform, with Majerus, along with Miller and the rest of the textbook writers, among the conspirators. As for the idea of resolving the issues by observation, that does not ever seem to have occurred to him.

Wells is now a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture, set up in 1996. According to its foundation document, this Center “seeks nothing less than the overthrow of materialism and its cultural legacies,” aiming “to replace materialistic explanations with the theistic understanding that nature and human beings are created by God.” Darwinian evolution is among the materialistic explanations opposed by the Center, which therefore promotes the pseudoscientific alternative of Intelligent Design (ID). In brief, ID claims that biological complexity is too great to have arisen from natural causes. It must therefore have arisen from the purposeful activity of an unspecified designer (or Designer). As for how the design is then embodied, we are told that we must look beyond natural causes. Supporters of ID repeatedly affirm that this argument is scientific and has nothing to do with religion.

Wells’s colleagues at the Discovery Institute are full of praise for Icons:

Jonathan Wells demonstrates with stunning clarity that the textbook examples Darwinists themselves choose as the pillars of their theory are false or misleading. What does this imply about their scientific standards? Why should anyone now believe any of their other examples?

This from Michael Behe, despite the fact that Behe himself accepts the broad historical fact of evolution. And then

Jonathan Wells … has brilliantly exposed the exaggerated claims and deceptions that have persisted in standard textbook discussions… in spite of contrary evidence.

This from Dean Kenyon, another Discovery Institute Fellow, who was converted to Young Earth creationism in the late 1970s.

Finally,

This is one of the most important books ever written about the evolution controversy. It shows how devotion to the ideology of Darwinism has led to textbooks that are full of misinformation.

This from Phillip Johnson, a lawyer with no training in life sciences, inspiration of the Discovery Institute and co-founder and Program Advisor to the Center for Science and Culture, who believes in the separate creation of different kinds.

So there we have it. Because of the moth photos, and similar weighty matters, Darwinists (i.e. all mainstream life scientists) promote falsehood, mislead, have poor scientific standards, cannot be believed, exaggerate and deceive, ignore evidence, and fill their textbooks with misinformation. It is very important to realize this, because evolution is controversial, and Darwinism an ideology with devoted followers. It would follow that the numerous objections to Wells’s book in every science-based review (a few are listed herehere, and here, and in references therein), are based on ideology rather than any flaws in his reasoning. As Wells puts it in his response to critics, for evolutionary biologists “understanding nature is less important than finding ways to prop up Darwin’s theory.”

More than a dozen years have passed since the publication of Icons, and a lot has happened in that time. Camouflage through choice of resting spot has been directly demonstrated, albeit with different moth species. The numbers of carbonaria have continued to decline as expected. Majerus completed his research programme, and a consortium of entomologists wrote up the results after his death. Kettlewell’s mechanism was confirmed in almost every detail, and is now generally accepted, even by former critics including Coyne. Using genetic mapping, melanism in British peppered moths has been traced to a single recent mutation; if a similar mutant arose in pre-industrial times, it has evidently left no descendants.

Icons of Evolution, however, has left descendants a-plenty. It has a special Tenth Anniversary website, which tells us “What people are saying about Jonathan Wells and Icons of Evolution.” (The people quoted all happen to belong to the Discovery Institute or its satellites.) In September 2012, the Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture sent out a circular to parents, entitled “A Parent’s Guide to Intelligent Design”, which lists among its recommended resources a study guide to Icons, and a supporting video. The study guide publicity material also refers to Wells’s 2001 article, Survival of the Fakest. In May 2013, the Discovery Institute published a homeschooling textbook, Discovering Intelligent Design, which has 12 separate index entries for Wells, including one for his treatment of the peppered moth, and concludes from these that “The fact that these icons of evolution – inch beak sizes, moth color, or exaggerated embryo drawings – are so weak, and yet so commonly used, should tell us something. If evolutionary biologists had better evidence, you would know about it.”

Our thesis is confirmed by observation. Creationism is a conspiracy theory, and one with damaging consequences. Pity the homeschooled children it continues to recruit into the ranks of the misinformed.

 

“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 Amazon.com, 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)

Image

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)

Creationism as conspiracy theory, and the teaching of the Urey-Miller experiment

Some time, you may want to start a conspiracy theory. If you want to learn how to do this, you cannot do better than study the antics of the creationists, and especially their Discovery Institute (DI) think tank.

Creationists absolutely need to have a conspiracy theory. That is because their position contradicts everything that scientists have been telling us for the past 200 years, or even, in its Young Earth version, the past 300 years. If creationism is true, the entire intellectual establishment has been lying to you.

All conspiracy theories work the same way. Like the most unpleasant kinds of religion, they divide humanity into two groups, the illuminated and the benighted, and offer membership of the illuminated, if you will only accept their central doctrine. To qualify as a conspiracy theory, that doctrine has to pour scorn on the most obvious or scientifically validated explanations of the facts, and replace them with the belief that these explanations, or indeed these facts, are fabricated by a close-knit group of wicked people (in this case, the Wicked Evolutionists, or WE), cynically manipulating the evidence for their own disreputable reasons. Once this belief is in place, it is self-sustaining, since all evidence to the contrary is tainted, coming as it does from the Unscrupulous Scientists (US).

The next step in setting up your conspiracy theory is to find a group of people who already want to believe you. Most of us, after all, spent most of our thinking time in looking for evidence in favour of what we want to believe. So find a group of people who already have reasons to want your claims to be true. They might, for example, wish to believe that the Government is hiding evidence of UFOs, or that NASA is a giant scam, or Barack Obama should not be President of the United States, or that Government should not interfere with the operations of industry.

Then give them an excuse, however flimsy, for believing. Believing that aliens landed at Roswell, or that the Moon Landings were faked, or that Obama was born in Kenya, or that there is no such thing as man-made global warming. Or, at least, for believing that the topic is controversial. If all else fails, your own voice raised in denial of reality can be used as evidence that the controversy is real.

You’ve now got US in a cleft stick. If WE ignore you, you can continue unchallenged. If WE reply to you, that proves that there really is a controversy. And if WE try to explain that there is nothing worthy of a reply, you can claim, as William Lane Craig claimed when Richard Dawkins refused to debate with him, that WE are scared of you.

Finally, you have to convince your target audience that it matters. Here the creationists have it easy. For most people, at least for most people outside some parts of Western Europe, religion matters. If the Bible is literally true, as a lot of people would like to believe, then evolution is wrong and WE are spreading false doctrine. Moreover, since WE are smart people (no self-respecting conspiracy theory would claim that Nobel Prize winners as a group are stupid), WE must be spreading that false doctrine for non-scientific reasons. And what might that reason be? Obviously, naturalism is a form of materialism which is a form of atheism. It is therefore the scientific, as well as the religious and moral, duty of creationists to refute what WE are saying. Hence the DI’s notorious Wedge Strategy. Refute evolution, and the way is open, as the wedge Document says, to refute “scientific materialism” [emphasis in original] and reinstate “theistic understanding.”

Cover of the Wedge Document.

Time to illustrate by example. And a good example it is; the DI members are really very good at what they do. This one comes from the cover letter that the Discovery Institute recently sent out with its pamphlet for parents, A Parent’s Guide to Intelligent Design. My excuses for publicising here are that it is going to reach its target audience without any help from me, and that this particular example is in fact rather instructive. I take a perverse pleasure in showing ways that we can learn, from creationist materials, what the creationists themselves refuse to learn.

So here it is, reproduced solely for purposes of discussion and review. Emphasis in the original:

Dear [first name]:

 Textbooks and teachers stop teaching myths about evolution when the mainstream media admit textbooks are wrong … don’t they?

Not if the data challenges Darwinian evolution.

… Retelling outdated myths about the Miller-Urey experiment and the origin of life and wrongly telling students the experiment correctly simulated gases present on the early earth …

The evidence challenging evolution is beginning to outweigh the evidence that supports it.  But will your kids learn about that in their science classes?  Unfortunately, probably not.

To help parents understand all the aspects of the debate over Darwinian evolution and intelligent design we created a free 28 page e-booklet A Parent’s Guide to Intelligent Design: Resources to help you and your children understand the debate between Darwinian evolution and intelligent design.

 The free booklet comes with a request to donate, but whether that Discovery Institute really needs that money, or whether it is just another device to generate commitment, we can only speculate.

Let’s look first at the overall structure, and then at the specific claim, (which is actually one of four; but life is short).

Starting off with the initial rhetorical question, and its proposed answer. Here the purpose is clear, while the language, quite deliberately, is not. Note the reference to the mainstream media, suggesting that it is the biology teachers and textbook writers who are the fringe group. The nudge nudge, wink wink, dot dot dot layout establishes intimacy; reader and writer bonded together by a common understanding. Finally, the question and answer format introduces an element of deniability that you will find throughout the creationist literature. “We don’t say evolution is wrong, we just draw attention to all the question marks about it.”

Now to the substance of the claim I’m examining, that the textbooks are “Retelling outdated myths about the Miller-Urey experiment and the origin of life and wrongly telling students the experiment correctly simulated gases present on the early earth.” 30 years ago, this claim might have had some validity, but not now. No matter. Once a claim enters the creationist literature, it takes on a life of its own. For example, Darwin’s lament about the incompleteness of the fossil record in 1859 is repeated as if it described the situation today, despite the existence of tons (literally) of evidence unearthed (literally) to the contrary. So let’s look at what actually happens in the Urey-Miller experiment, what it does or does not tell us, and how it is treated in 21st-century textbooks.

Miller-Urey experiment (1953).

Miller-Urey experiment (1953). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The original report of the Urey-Miller experiment relates it to Harold Urey’s cold accretion theory, which maintained that the planets formed so slowly that the gravitational energy of their formation was dissipated as heat. On this theory, the metal from iron-nickel meteorites would have been lying around on the Earth’s surface giving rise to a strongly reducing (i.e. hydrogen-rich) atmosphere. This theory did not survive the moon landings, and the discovery that most of the moon’s surface consisted of molten basalt. Nor does the experiment address the origin of biological polymers, or of organisation. Nonetheless, the experiment was, and remains, liberating. It destroyed the assumption that the building blocks of life are difficult to come by.

Changes in thinking since then have all been in the direction of making the production of these molecules seem easier. As Stanley Miller himself showed in one of his late (2002) papers, we don’t need a strongly reducing atmosphere. We certainly don’t need ammonia, the least plausible of his original ingredients because it is so readily destroyed by UV light, as long as we have nitrogen, N2, (which we certainly would have) and some source of energy powerful enough to split it into separate atoms (and we would certainly have had that, in the form of the Sun’s unfiltered UV light, back before the formation of atmospheric oxygen and ozone, as well as lightning). We don’t need large amounts of methane. Very small amounts, which could readily arise from geochemical processes (as seems to be happening on Mars), would do the trick, as would carbon monoxide, a component of volcanic gas; it was carbon monoxide that was used in Miller’s 2002 work. Organics could also have arisen by completely different pathways, including reactions at hydrothermal vents, or on sulphide mineral surfaces, and large amounts of organics would in any case have been brought to earth by comets. Comets, after all, are dirty snowballs. The snow is thought to have made a major contribution to the Earth’s oceans, and the dirt is a mixture of organic compounds. Simple organic molecules are a precondition for life as we know it. We do not know the relative contribution of the various possibilities to the inventory of such molecules on the early Earth, but we can feel confident that they were there – one way and/or another.

What about the textbooks? What do they say, what should they be saying, and how much justice, if any, is there in the Discovery Institute’s accusations?

To quote Ken Miller[1], who is, among other things, one of our most influential educators and textbook writers in biological science:

It’s absolutely true, of course, that the strongly reducing atmosphere Miller and Urey used for their first experiments is now not thought to be indicative of the primitive earth.  Therefore, it would be a mistake to claim that these experiments “proved” anything about the actual biochemical pathways to life on earth.

However, these experiments were still absolutely essential in shaping our current views of prebiotic evolution.

Exactly. Urey-Miller demystified the production of the building blocks of life. For some decades, there was rancorous disagreement between those who paid high regard the original experiment, and the geochemists to whom such an atmosphere seemed increasingly implausible. However, once it became clear that the highly reducing atmosphere was no longer even necessary, the dispute faded into the background.

I have looked at half a dozen textbooks. One of them did in fact present the Urey-Miller atmosphere as realistic, which I regard as gross professional incompetence, rather than the deliberate concealment suggested by the creationists. However, even this text did mention reactions at mineral surfaces as an alternative. Every biology textbook that I have examined, with one exception, makes it clear that finding a possible source for the building blocks is not the same as explaining the origins of life. The exception is the 2012 text Evolution – Making Sense of Life, by Carl Zimmer and Douglas Emlen, which presents the isotopic and fossil evidence for Archaean life, but says nothing about its origin. And indeed, why should it? We don’t demand that a chemistry textbook gives an account of the origin of the atoms, nor could it possibly have done so during the 150 or so years between when Dalton put forward the first version of the modern atomic theory, and when Fred Hoyle and co-workers gave the first good account of the origin of elements heavier than helium.

So rest assured that your children’s textbooks will not retell “outdated myths about the Miller-Urey experiment and the origin of life”, but will, on the contrary, carefully distinguish between the formation of prebiotic organic molecules, and the origin of life itself. And even the few texts that are still guilty of “wrongly telling students the experiment correctly simulated gases present on the early earth” are careful to make this distinction.

And the Discovery Institute is doing what they always do superbly. Distorting reality.

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[1] Personal communication

Don’t say “Darwin” when you mean “evolution” (part 1)

Part I,Dalton and Darwin

Don’t say “Darwin” when you mean “evolution”. Don’t say “theory of evolution” when you mean the established historical facts of change over time and common descent. And above all, don’t say “Darwin’s theory of evolution” except in the historical context of the evolution of ideas. If you do, you are guilty of scientific, logical, historical, and pedagogical errors, and playing into the hands of our Creationist opponents.

Dalton is to the modern atomic theory, and the modern atomic theory is to chemistry, as Darwin(not to forget Wallace) is to evolution, and as evolution is to biology. But we don’t call our present perspective on atoms “Dalton’s theory”, and indeed, unless we are speaking historically, it sounds odd to even talk about “atomic theory” when we discuss atoms. So why should we refer to “Darwin’s theory”, and indeed why should we talk about the “theory of evolution” when we really mean the fact that evolution has taken place? I argue here that we shouldn’t, and that, given the ongoing opposition to the central facts of biology, it is actively damaging to do so.

John Dalton produced his “atomic theory” in the early 19th century. He arrived at it by way of a theory of gas pressure that we now know to be totally erroneous. Wielding Occam’s Razor rather too energetically, he assumed that the simplest compound between two elements contained just one atom of each, so that water would have the formula HO. He rejected what now seems to us perhaps the most striking validation of his theory, Gay-Lussac’s observation that gases combine according to simple ratios, because it pointed towards what later became known as Avogadro’s Hypothesis, which in turn required some gaseous molecules to be divisible,[1] and when it came to gaseous elements Dalton had not grasped the distinction between atoms (the fundamental particles of chemical composition) and molecules (the fundamental particles of gas pressure). It was half a century before his theory was generally accepted, and even then some remained sceptical, on the grounds that no one had ever observed the effects of individual atoms or molecules, until in 1905 Einstein pointed out that that was exactly what people were doing when they looked at Brownian motion. These days, however, individual atoms are routinely observed by the methods of high resolution transmission electron microscopy, and scanning tunnelling microscopy, both of which depend on concepts far beyond any available to Dalton.

Charles Darwin produced his theory of the mutability of species as the result of natural selection (he did not himself use the term “evolution”) in the mid-19th century. Central to the theory is the existence of sufficient heritable variation to explain the diversity of life, and a major stumbling block is the prospect that favourable variations will disappear through dilution.[2] He appealed to the experience of animal breeders, but as a solution to the problem of dilution this is grossly unfair, since breeders can and do deliberately select rare variants to breed between. He lamented the absence of fossil evidence, in terms still quoted by creationists despite the tons (literally) of such evidence that have been unearthed (literally, again) in the intervening 150 years. He was unaware of the digital nature of inheritance, as established by his contemporary, Gregor Mendel, but not widely known until that work was rediscovered (or more accurately, perhaps, reinterpreted)[3] at the beginning of the 20th century. He fully realised that evolution required many millions of years, and had no good answer when Lord Kelvin, his “ogre”, used thermodynamic arguments to show (correctly) that the then known sources of energy could only have kept the sun shining for a mere 20 million years or so. He had no inkling of the nature of the genetic material, and could not have conceived of the methods of molecular biology that now allow us, using much the same kind of evidence that the courts use to establish paternity, to compare related species and to chart their divergence in exquisite detail. Least of all did he have any notion of the source of the variations of which evolution depends, or of how the supply of variants is constantly replenished by mutation, a process that we can now observe at the level of an individual’s DNA.

The first half of the 20th century saw the formation of what became known as “the neo-Darwinian synthesis”, bringing together by the 1940s the concept of selection and the methods of population genetics. (The expression “neo-Darwinian” should now properly be restricted to the evolutionary thought of that time, although Creationists persist in applying it to current biology, for reasons to be discussed in part II).  The second half saw an explosion in our understanding of inheritance, based on laboratory studies, while the final decades saw breakthroughs in our understanding of human evolution, with the discovery of the fossilised remains of over a dozen species of our early relatives in eastern and southern Africa. By the end of the 20th century, evolution denial could fairly be compared with Holocaust denial. Given what we have learnt from molecular biology in the present century, it could now more fairly be compared with denying that Hitler ever invaded Poland in the first place.

So why does the name of Darwin still provoke controversy, why do people still speak of  “the theory of evolution”, when as often as not they are referring, not to theory, but to the established historical facts,  why does it matter, and how should we respond? These topics will be the subject of my next posting on this subject, “Naming and Framing”.

(You will find  more on Dalton  and his times, and on Kelvin and the age of the earth,  in my book, From Stars to Stalagmites, and the arguments in these two posts are developed at greater length in an article that I wrote with Britt Holbrook; Putting Darwin in his Place; the Need to Watch our Language. ) This post first appeared on The 21st Floor

Refs


[1]  Two volumes of hydrogen combine with one volume of oxygen to make two volumes of steam. If, as required by Avogadro’s Hypothesis, equal volumes of gas contain equal numbers of molecules, then each molecule of oxygen must contain (at least) two atoms, as shown in the way we now write this equation: 2H2 + O2 = 2H2O

[2] Imagine a favourable red variant in a population of white flowers. Under the blending theory of inheritance then current, its first generation offspring will be deep pink, the second generation somewhat paler, and so on until the descendants are indistinguishable from the general population.

[3]  See Genesis; the Evolution of Biology, Jan Sapp, OUP, 2003, pp 117-122

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