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Evolution and creationism; a valuable new resource

The Science Meets Religion website, by the information scientist David Bailey, has a Q&A page that addresses the most common and most plausible scientific objections raised by creationists to the science of evolution. Twenty-six specific questions are chosen, and answered in a series of brief essays on such topics as complexity, information theory, radiometric dating, fossils, speciation, and thermodynamics. For each of these, Bailey gives a straightforward statement of the creationist arguments, and then succinctly lays out the evidence for the contrary viewpoint. The rebuttals of creationism are all the more crushing for being written with judicial dispassion.


Our family tree, since we parted company with other chimpanzees

The style is accessible enough for a high school student to read with enjoyment, but the scholarship behind it is impressive. For example, the discussion of alleged missing links between humans and non-human apes gives fourteen separate references to discoveries in the last eventful half dozen years. The essays on dating methods list, and refute, nine separate creationist claims, and refer to numerous scientific sources. These include authoritative on-line reviews such as Wiens and Dalrymple on radiometric dating and Dalrymple on the fallacies in the “creation science” arguments for a young Earth, as well as some key papers fron the primary research literature. The bibliography has (at present) 764 entries, more than 50 of them from 2015, refers to the scientific, creationist, and theological literature, as well as human behaviour and its link (or not) to religious belief, and is regularly updated (most recently last September). You will find here articles on everything from the latest word on Homo naledi to the microwave spectra of distant galaxies to divorce rates.

Bailey is himself a committed Christian, and joins other Christian writers such as Dennis Venema at Biologos and Roger Wiens (whose web page on radiometric dating I cite above) in showing that the “controversy” between evolution and creationism is not so much a conflict between science and religion, as a battle within religion itself. As the Scopes trial anniversary reminded us, this civil war in its current form dates back a century, to the conflict between Modernists and Fundamentalists. (The underlying issues, of course, are far older, and Bailey’s bibliography gives three references to Augustine.)

Some of my fellow unbelievers think the best way to advance the cause of enlightenment is to attack religion. I regard this course as mistaken, psychologically, philosophically, historically, educationally, and tactically. I think that the followers of any religion face major problems, but they are their problems, and it is not my place to lecture them on how they should be resolved.

In addition, affirmations of the validity of evolution and Old Earth geology have far greater power when they come from within the body of believers. Anyone who chooses to be misled by the claim that evolution is uncertain because it is a theory, or who prefers the absurdities of Flood Geology to the evidence of their own eyes, is in need of intellectual liberation, but such liberation can only come from within, and will come far more readily given the encouragement of members of their own faith community.

I conclude by illustrating this point with a paragraph from Bailey’s critique of Intelligent Design:

One overriding difficulty with both the creationist and intelligent design movements is that invoking a Creator or Designer whenever one encounters a difficult question is a “thinking stopper.” Such an approach places numerous grand questions of our existence off-limits to human investigation, buried in the inscrutable mind of a mysterious supreme Being: “Why was the earth (or the universe in general) designed the way it was?” “How did the design and creative processes proceed?” “What physical laws were employed?” “Why those particular laws?” “What prompted the creation?” “Have other earths or universes been designed or created?” “Where are they?” Surely there is a more fruitful avenue for finding a harmony between science and religion than just saying “God created and/or designed it that way” and then deeming it either unnecessary or inappropriate to inquire further.

Here we have a powerful statement, far more powerful because it comes from a committed believer,  of why such doctrines are not merely stupid irrelevancies, but active obstacles in the search for religious, as well as scientific, understanding.

David Bailey’s professional website is here; his professional homes are Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory and (current primary affiliation) University of California, Davis. I learnt of his work through a post on Scott Buchanan’s Letters to Creationists. David uses the hominin evolutionary tree that I show here (taken from Scientific American’s September 2014 special issue on evolution) to illustrate what we do and do not know about our species’ grandparents and great-uncles.

100 Reasons the Earth is Old (reblogged from Age Of Rocks)

I am posting this page from Jonathan Baker’s Age of Rocks here for several reasons. It is an extremely useful resource, well researched and well-written; the author addresses creationists with humanity and respect, even as he demolishes their position; and the author himself is a committed Christian (why that should matter to me, a free-thinking atheist, is something I explain below).

Edinburgh to Siccar Point June-Jly 2012 048

Siccar Point. Horizontal Devonian sandstone over uptilted Silurian greywacke. Click and re-click to enlarge

The evidence presented ranges from tree rings to topography to sedimentology to physical geography to archaeology and anthropology to geochemistry to the fossil record to radiometric dating to astrophysics. Many of these are topics I have touched on, for example in my discussions of the unconformity at Siccar Point, and the slowly cooled multiple lava flows and palaeosols of the Giants’ Causeway.

In each case, the reasoning is briefly described, with links to more detailed discussions, many framed specifically to refute creationist claims. By relegating those claims to second place, the author avoids the common mistake of teaching the very error that he is warning against. At the same time, he pays a respectful attention to his opponents, for reasons that he explains elsewhere in his blog, even as he dismantles their arguments.

Like the authors of EvoAnth  and Leaving Fundamentalism, the author is at present a graduate student; welcome examples of how the web is democratising discourse, and how young scientists and educators are using the opportunity.

I commend this piece to all those who have to deal with creationism in schools and elsewhere, alongside such classics as 29+ Evidences for Macroevolution and Index to Creationist Claims, and hope that the author will continue to update and add to it as his own career progresses.


Giants’ Causeway: interbasaltic laterite palaeosol between lava flows at The Chimneys. Click and reclick to enlarge

Like Dennis Venema at Biologos and Robert Wiens at Radiometric Dating – A Christian Perspective, the author is a committed Christian, thus helping to give the lie to the claim Read the rest of this entry

Darwin, Wallace, Evolution, and Atheism (Part II of Bears, whales, God, Darwin, and Peter Hitchens)

[For Part I, see here]

Peter Hitchens, younger brother of the late Christopher, says in the notorious London Daily Mail that the implication of evolution “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.” Pat Robertson claims that “the evolutionists worship atheism.” Richard Dawkins tells us that he lost his faith in God when he learned about evolution, the claim that evolution is intrinsically atheistical is used repeatedly by advocates of creationism, including that bizarre oxymoron, “scientific creationism”, and the Discovery Institute’s Wedge Document describes it as part of a malignant materialism that debunks traditional views of both God and man. Discovery Institute fellows also coached Ann Coulter, who went on to tell us that evolution is itself a discredited religion, related to the mental disorders of liberalism and godlessness.

Yet from the very outset there have been believers who actively welcomed evolution. Asa Gray, the botanist to whom Darwin dedicated his own book Forms of Flowers, saw evolution as the natural process through which God worked. Charles Kingsley, the Christian social reformer and historian now best remembered for The Water Babies, wrote appreciatively to Darwin, on previewing The Origin of Species, that a Deity who created “primal forms capable of self development” was “a loftier thought” than one who had created each kind separately. In our own time, we have evolution theology and Evolution Sunday. Ken Miller, a committed Catholic, is prominent as molecular biologist, textbook writer, and legal witness on behalf of evolution, while Dennis Venema’s postings on the website of BioLogos, an organization dedicated to the acceptance of science from a Christian perspective, are model expositions of evolutionary science.

Against this background, it may be helpful to look at the religious views of Charles Darwin himself, and also those of Alfred Russel Wallace, the two independent originators of the concept of evolution as the inevitable outcome of natural selection. Warning: this post will be longer than most. The Victorians do not lend themselves to sound bites.

File:Darwin-Wallace medal.jpg

Darwin’s private Autobiographies include a short but revealing chapter on religious belief. This the family regarded as so contentious that it was not made public in full until 1958. Darwin initially contemplated becoming a clergyman. He tells us that he “did not then in the least doubt that strict and electoral truth of every word in the Bible”, and was much impressed by Paley’s argument from the perfection of individual organisms to the existence of an intelligent creator, He was still quite orthodox while on the Beagle, but in the two years after his return he reconsidered his position, and gradually came to reject orthodox religion on historical, logical, philosophical, and indeed moral grounds. As he later wrote,

“I can indeed hardly see how anyone ought to wish Christianity to be true; for if so the plain language of the text seems to show that the men who do not believe, and this would include my Father, Brother and almost all my best friends, will be everlastingly punished.

And this is a damnable doctrine.”

As for the implications of science, Darwin’s conclusions are interesting. “The old argument of design in nature, as given by Paley … fails, now that the law of natural selection has been discovered…. Everything in nature is the result of fixed laws.” Regarding what he called, despite the deaths of three of his children, “the generally beneficent arrangement of the world”, this he explained as itself the result of evolution. In order to survive, creatures must be so constituted that pleasure outweighs pain and suffering, which “if long continued, causes depression and lessens the power of action.” As for the opposite argument, “The very old argument from the existence of suffering against the existence of an intelligence as cause seems to be a strong one; whereas… the presence of much suffering agrees well with the view that all organic beings have been developed through variation and natural selection.” In short, the argument from the goodness of the world and the counter-argument from suffering both fail, since the capacities to experience pleasure and suffering, and the balance between them, are themselves explained as evolved adaptations.

One argument, however, retained conviction at the time when he was writing On the Origin of Specie, namely “the extreme difficulty or rather impossibility of conceiving this immense and wonderful universe… as a result of blind chance or necessity.” Notice that Darwin makes a clear distinction, which today’s “Intelligent Design” advocates systematically blur, between Paley’s argument from the design of particular things (rejected, as we saw earlier), and the more powerful argument from the possible presence of design in the universe as a whole. The latter he finds convincing enough to say, at the very time that he was composing On the Origin of Species, that “I deserve to be called a Theist”.

Later, Darwin wonders, “can the mind of man, which has… been developed from a mind as low as that possessed by the lowest animal, be trusted when it draws such grand conclusions? … The mystery of the beginning of all things is insoluble by us, and I for one must be content to remain an Agnostic.” Our minds evolved to enable us to deal with commonplace reality, and we must doubt whether they are adequate instruments for speculating so far beyond that. “Agnostic” was a term then newly coined by his friend and prominent supporter, Thomas Huxley, and refers, not to a wishy-washy uncertainty, but to the principled conviction that there was no adequate way of deciding the question.

Alfred Russel Wallace is a much more complicated case. He seems to us self-contradictory and changeable, an opponent of the supernatural who nonetheless took Spiritualism seriously. He was also much more wordy than Darwin; his autobiography runs to two thick volumes. I have therefore relied mainly on secondary sources,[1]  together with his review of Lyell’s writings on geology, in the April 1869 issue of The Quarterly Review[2], and his 1871 reply to critics.

In his teens, Wallace came into contact with the reformist ideas of Robert Owen, and abandoned conventional religion, with its emphasis on original sin, for a belief in human improvability based on the natural sense of justice. Throughout his adult life, he described himself as a Socialist, and wrote a book in favour of the nationalization of land. He seems to believe in a Creator, and indeed advances, as an argument in favour of evolution, that separate design for every creature would reduce that Creator to the level of a second-rate craftsman[3] (compare Charles Kingsley’s comments, above). However, only two years before formulating his own version of the theory of natural selection, he had written of how far, in his view, the beauty and diversity of the forms of living things goes beyond what could, for him, be explained in terms of their requirements.[4]

 This last conclusion may help make sense of his 1869 review of Lyell, in which he asserted that there were things about humanity, in particular, that could not be explained by natural selection. Abstract thought, moral sense, and the design of the hand, all as much present in what he called the savage as in civilized man, seemed to him superfluous to the requirements of the savage’s life. This despite having lived among such savages while collecting specimens, and observing the demanding nature of their lifestyles, the skill of their toolmaking, and the subtleties of their social organization. He also makes the linked arguments that evolution cannot explain the development of consciousness (for contrary opinions, see Dennett’s Kinds of Minds and Cairns-Smith’s Evolving the Mind), and that materialism cannot explain how consciousness could exist at all (here, I think, Wallace is referring to a problem that we are no nearer solving now than we were then).

But does this mean that he was willing to embrace the supernatural? Quite the reverse! In his answers to critics, he says very plainly that he does no such thing. What he does do, is reject materialism. There is more in the universe than matter, but nothing that is beyond the scope of natural science.

So what of Peter Hitchens’s (and, for what it’s worth, Pat Robinson’s) claim, given that neither Darwin nor Wallace could be pigeonholed as atheists, and that Wallace was not even a materialist? Totally false. Grossly insulting to the entire scientific community, portrayed as choosing its key concepts according to an ideological agenda quite outside science. As I said before regarding all evolution denialism, dependent on a conspiracy theory. And a warning to all of us; if this is typical of journalistic comment in the areas that we know about, like science, how should we regard such comment in areas that we cannot so readily examine, like Syria?

There remain some serious questions. Is it possible to accept evolution without being an atheist? Quite obviously, yes, as Darwin, Wallace, and many examples listed here clearly show. But human psychology is notoriously quirky and tolerant of self-contradictions). So, as a matter of logic, is religious belief compatible with the acceptance of the fact of evolution?

The answer, surely, must depend on the kind of religion, and here my sympathies lie entirely with their Evolution Sunday crowd. Evolution demolishes one version of the argument from design, but even when I was a believer I did not find that version convincing. And, for the reasons spelt out over the past 150 years by Kingsley, Darwin, and many others, evolution poses no new problems for religion in general, and indeed may blunt some of the traditional arguments used against it.

What is not consistent, either with present-day scientific knowledge, or with any kind of scientific approach to reality, is a religion dependent on an overriding belief in the literal truth of its sacred text. Such a position renders impossible any sensible discussion of evolution, or of nature in general, or, indeed, of God.

[1] See e.g. Helena Cronin’s The Ant and the Peacock, which discusses Darwin’s and Wallace is different views on sexual selection and cooperation; Natural Selection and and Beyond, ed. Charles H Smith and George Beccaloni.

[2] Confusingly indexed in QR under Lyell, not Wallace.

[3] Smith and Beccaloni, p. 327.

[4] Ibid p. 370.

More from Edinburgh on the future of religion, and some thoughts on accommodation and accommodationism

Update: Keith and I will be discussing this with the Edinburgh Humanists, 7:30 pm, Monday 3rd June; Mercure Hotel (formerly Mount Royal Hotel), Skyline suite on 7th floor (there’s a lift), 53 Princes Street, Edinburgh EH2 2DG (East End of Princes Street, between M&S and Jenners Department Store)

I have already posted my own introductory remarks at the Edinburgh International Science Festival discussion. Here are my summaries of those from Keith Gilmour (of Unintelligent Design fame, convener of Glasgow Brights, and Religious Moral and Philosophical Education teacher), and the Rev Andrew Frater, of the Thinking Allowed critical theology lecture series, and my own reflections on these. Keith looks forward to the coming together of rationalists with liberal-minded believers, I, in contrast, think that we are looking out some unbridgeable divides, on topics that matter greatly to the believers, but wonder how much they should be allowed to matter to the rest of us.

Keith: To quote Niels Bohr, prediction is always difficult, especially regarding the future. Who in 1988 would have foretold the incredible drop in crime, divorce, and teen pregnancies, the legalisation of gay marriage, the smoking ban, the resignation of a pope, or Martin McGuiness shaking hands with the Queen?

The obvious prediction for the Church is ongoing decline. I think of it more like an alcoholic, heading for rock bottom, at which point it might either go under, or make a comeback. Going under would mean continuing with the suicidal policies of gender inequality, and obsession with sexual guilt. A comeback would mean some major changes, leading towards a future with general acceptance of gay marriage and gay adoption, a Catholic church purged of paedophilia, a Christianity free from literalist mythology, gender discrimination, “God of the gaps” reasoning and similar nonsense, and, in time, an Islam that has also freed itself from obscurantist nastiness.

In any case, religion will never disappear as long as we retain our fear of death, the dark and the unknown, and our tendency to wishful thinking.

The big questions of life, death, and meaningfulness will not go away, nor should they. And so religion will not die out. Faith, perhaps, yes, but not hope or charity, awe, wonder or mystery. If Dawkins can quote Psalm 19 with approval, “The heavens declare the glory of God and the firmament show us his handiwork”, there may even be room for a grand coalition between non-dogmatic religion, and the rationalist’s sense of wonder.

Or, to put it another way: You say God is love, we’ll say Love is god, and let’s split the difference!

Andrew had walked that day in the steps of Thomas Aikenhead, executed for heresy in 1696, and to whom the General Assembly should now make a public apology. Jesus didn’t die as a sacrifice; he was killed. He was killed for being a protester by the power structure, of the rabbinical power structure who recognized him as a challenge, and the power structure of Rome who understood the threat posed by his message of love and common humanity. Aikenhead’s crime was to question biblical literalism, to suggest that Eden was a myth, and to attempt to bring the Church of Scotland of his day in line with the emerging Enlightenment.

Andrew’s hope is that some of the spirit of Aikenhead will survive. For him, Christianity is not a matter of accepting this or that belief, but of following in the footsteps of the Man on the donkey. The Church is not a hierarchy but a body of people, and its ministry is to serve people. The claim that same-sex marriage is a threat to Christian marriage is absurd, because there is no such thing as Christian marriage, only human marriage. When religion defines dogmas, develops structures, and limits enquiry, it is doing the very opposite of everything that Jesus stood for. The Church has already hit rock bottom. It hit rock bottom under the Emperor Constantine, when it allowed itself to be established as an official religion, and needs to redeem itself from this. As for the factual claims made by religion, these are simply beside the point. The message of love and self-worth does not depend on whether or not strange things actually happened in a particular tomb some 2000 years ago.

Andrew is as close a partner as Keith could hope for among believers, and yet I see the gap between them as unbridgeable. For Andrew, the universe has a purpose, even if we do not know what it is, the Gospel story has a special mystical significance, and some very precious part of a person survives physical death. For Keith, as for me, purpose is something we must each create for ourselves in an indifferent and unmotivated universe, the Gospels are an incoherent palimpsest, and the mind can no more exist without the body than a computer program can run without hardware. These are differences that cannot be “split”.

But how much does this matter? Keith and I totally disagree, whereas I suspect that Andrew and I generally agree, on questions of politics and economics. I see Keith’s acceptance of 21st century capitalism as an ideological delusion, whereas he sees the primacy I give to social concerns as soft-minded evasion. These also are differences that cannot be “split”. But they do not stop me from embracing Keith as an ally in the fight (it is a fight) against the infiltration of education by creationists and other religious obscurantists. And I do not see my differences with Andrew as reason not to embrace him in the same cause. Indeed, I value him particularly highly, as I value allies like Dennis Venema, because they can argue the case from within the tent of religion, as I can not.

And if this makes me an “accommodationist”, so be it.

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