Courtroom Sketch of Ken Miller testifying at the Dover trial, via betterrightthanhappy
The lesson of Kitzmiller: Science bridges divides, by Nathan H. Lents and S. Joshua Swamidass, Dec 28, 2020 , shows how the Kitzmiller trial itself, and, more generally, the defence of science against obscurantism, bridges the gulf between believers and nonbelievers. My own view is that the deeper gulf is one found within all three Abrahamic religions, between those who are willing to accommodate their reading of the sacred texts to scientific (and I would add historical) reality, and those who insist that these texts, literally interpreted, are the infallible word of God.
Ken Miller, Genie Scott & Barbara Forrest: 15 Years After Dover, by Faizal Ali, Dec 26, 2020, with links to interviews of three major participants; Ken Miller, Eugenie Scott, and Barbara Forrest. As many readers will know, Ken Miller, biology professor and major textbook author, has been defending evolution against creationist attacks for 40 years, Eugenie Scott was at the time director of the (US) National Center for Science Education, which acted as consultant to the plaintiffs and was instrumental in forming the legal strategy, and Barbara Forrest, philosopher, testified that the trial that Intelligent Design should not be considered science because of its reliance on the supernatural.
As this blog piece points out, that last argument (technically: intrinsic methodological naturalism) should give us pause, and is now rejected by many philosophers and scientists, including me, in favour of a provisional methodological naturalism that would be willing to examine supernaturalist explanations on their merits, if they had any. Indeed, the piece argues that judge Jones’ blistering verdict in this case was only made possible by the incompetence of the School Board, who made their religious motivation obvious.
The Discovery Institute continues to claim that Kitzmiller was wrongly decided, and even that “recent scientific discoveries have confirmed and extended the concept of irreducible complexity.” https://www.discovery.org/2019/01/revolutionary-michael-behes-intelligent-design-documentary-is-now-free-online/ Most recently, to mark the 15th anniversary of the trial, the DI featured a debate on the issues https://www.discovery.org/v/the-kitzmiller-v-dover-trial-and-intelligent-design-fifteen-years-on/ between Michael Behe and Joshua Swamidass. While I have a poor opinion of Behe’s ideas, I admire his willingness to discuss them. I would also praise him for not abandoning his post at the trial when things got difficult, unlike several of his Discovery Institute colleagues.
I was curious to see what are the major creationist organisations had to say about the trial, even though they were not directly involved. Answers in Genesis mentions Kitzmiller as part of a recent (December 2020) long discussion of US court cases, claiming that “The Kitzmiller ruling has stifled debate in classrooms and prevented full discussion of topics related to biological origins. The result is that indoctrination has replaced education, at least in this one area.” No need to spell out my own reaction to that claim. Also in December 2020, Creation Ministries International offers us a review, by Jerry Bergman, of Ron Milliner’s Fake Evidence: A look at evolutionary evidence for over 90 years in the court cases from Scopes to Kitzmiller, Elm Hill (Elm Hill Books appears to be a self-publishing service under the umbrella of HarperCollins Christian Publishing). This review is not yet available to non-subscribers, but it seems clear from elsewhere that the book’s title is a fair summary of its thesis, that it is yet another example of the evolution-is-a-conspiracy genre, and that Jerry Bergman can be expected to approve.
“[T]here is in fact nothing that can alleviate that fatal flaw in Darwinism” says Professor Behe, stating the book’s central claim in the mendaciously mislabelled creationist web journal Evolution News.
The claim is clickbait, the book title misleading, and the argument long since rebutted. The historical roots of the argument show the close links between what now calls itself Intelligent Design, and biblically inspired “creation science”. The issues are important because the Intelligent Design movement gives a veneer of intellectual respectability to the denial of scientific reality. Read the rest of this entry
Dec 20 is the anniversary of the Kitzmiller decision, an early Christmas day present for science and common sense. But when I first wrote here “Judge E. Jones III’s ruling is … unlikely to be challenged unless at some later date the US Supreme Court acquires a creationist majority” I had not foreseen a creationist Vice-President. Take nothing for granted.
Kitzmiller v Dover Area School District, in which judgment was pronounced on 20th December 2005, is the court case that established that Intelligent Design is not science, but a form of religiously motivated creationism, and as such may not be taught in publicly funded schools in the US.This is a shortened version of what I told the students at Texas Academy of Mathematics and Science, University of North Texas’s early admissions programme, whom I was privileged to be teaching at the time of the trial. I have omitted my discussion of the embarrassing Intelligent Design pseudotext, Of Pandas and People, and the even more embarrassing statement that the Dover School Board instructed teachers to read, for reasons of space and because I have discussed them here before. I have tried to avoid rewriting in…
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The Discovery Institute, self appointed spokesman for Intelligent Design theory (i.e. cryptocreationist obscurantism) has singled out my piece in The Conversation, How to slam dunk creationists when it comes to the theory of evolution.
My piece argues that we should be talking about the evidence, not about the meaning of words. In particular, I take exception to the National Academy of Sciences definition of a theory as “supported by a vast body of evidence”, on the grounds that calling something a theory tells us nothing about how well supported it is. The Discovery Institute uses fancy layout to quotemine what I said, so that my criticism of the National Academy is made to look like approval, before taking exception to the National Academy of Sciences definition of a theory as “supported by a vast body of evidence”, on the grounds that calling something a theory tells us nothing about how well supported it is.
In passing, the DI also tells us that “Sahelanthropus … is thought by some to just be a female gorilla.” Eat your heart out, Smithsonian.
I’m honoured by such well-informed and well thought out attention. And while the DI’s article is unsigned, connoisseurs of Creationism will understand my additional delight at having Casey Luskin and Douglas Axe listed among my accusers. With enemies like this, who needs friends?
At the time of writing, my piece has attracted 78,000 hits [update: 95,000 hits] and been featured by Newsweek, Business Insider, The Raw Story, RealClearScience, and others. My thanks to Jane Wright, at The Conversation, whose skilful editing helped make all this possible.
[The read count by end 2017 was >307,000, with ~250,000 additional hits via Yahoo! News. The article was also translated into Arabic by the Iraqi Translation Project]
How Darwin’s name is taken in vain, with mini-reviews of some of the worst offenders. And when I wrote about this last year, I did not expect to have to add a US Vice-President to their number.
Charles Darwin never thought of evolution as anything other than a theory. He hoped that someday it would be proven by the fossil record but did not live to see that, nor have we. – Representative (now Vice-President) Mike Pence, 2002, via Forbes
Trump’s Education Secretary Nominee DeVos Should Challenge Darwinism* – David Klinghoffer, CNS, 13 January 2017 
Don’t say Darwin unless you mean it. Don’t say theory when you mean historical fact. And don’t say you believe in evolution, when you mean you accept it on the basis of the evidence.
Don’t say Darwin unless you mean it. Above all, don’t say “Darwin” when you mean “evolution”. It’s like 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, anything about what caused the phenomena they were talking about, and both would be delighted at how thoroughly their own work has been superseded. Read the rest of this entry
A lengthy scholarly discussion by my friend Michael Roberts of the concept of design, from Paley to the present day, making important distinctions between different concepts of design, and placing the Intelligent Design (ID) movement in context. The author, a geologist and historian (and CofE priest), argues that Paley’s concept of the individual design of organisms was obsolete long before Darwin, given the discoveries of deep time and the rich sequential fossil record. Present-day ID is a curious hybrid, and its evolution is discussed in some detail. However, neither the refutation of Paley nor the demolition of ID affect broader design arguments, such as that from fine-tuning or the glory of the natural world. (Disclosure: as my friends will know, I do not find these latter arguments convincing, but I do consider them worthy of respect, and have criticised attempts to use them as justification for evolution-denying creationism, which is not.)
A SHORT HISTORY OF DESIGN Michael Roberts
The first thing I should do is to define what Design is. That would be no easy task as the word is used in so many different ways to mean so many different things. I hope some of the variety of meanings comes clear in this paper. Part of the confusion is that Design can be synonymous with the teleological argument for the existence of God, but often it is more restricted to biological structures. Hence Design means different things to different people. Distinguishing between these meanings is important as confusion reigns when one switches from one to another. To give a rough typology there are four types of design;
1 Design of the universe; – front-loading or teleological (fine tuning)
2. Guidance of natural processes through history; Asa Gray
3. Ahistorical recognition of biological structures as designed; Hooke, Paley,
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How Darwin’s name is taken in vain, with mini-reviews of some of the worst offenders
Don’t say Darwin unless you mean it. Above all, don’t say “Darwin” when you mean “evolution”. It’s like 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 of course deserves further discussion in his own right, which I will be providing in a few weeks time.)
Imagine if a lot of people decided that atomic theory was against their religion. We would see a parallel world of sacred science, in which molecules were “intelligently constructed”, and real chemistry would be referred to as Daltonism, or possibly, these days, neo-Daltonism. The scientific dissidents from Daltonism would invoke Dalton’s name on every possible occasion, and draw attention to the many inadequacies of atomic theory as he presented it in 1808. 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. He was muddled about the difference between a molecule of hydrogen and an atom of hydrogen. He thought that the simplest compound between two different elements A and B would have the formula AB, so that water must be HO, not H2O. And of course he knew nothing about the origin of atoms, a problem not solved until the 1950s, over a century after his death. Obvious nonsense, the lot of it!
Darwin was ignorant of transitional fossils, and in words still quoted by creationists deplored their absence as the greatest objection to his theory. He was equally ignorant about the origin of biological novelty, which comes from mutating genes. In fact, he didn’t even know about genes. And because he did not realise that inheritance occurred through genes, he could not explain why favourable variations were not simply diluted out. It would be decades after his death before we could even speculate coherently about the origins of life, and despite tantalising clues it remains a largely unsolved problem. But despite this, we have learnt an enormous amount since the publication of On The Origin of Species, and everything that we have learnt is consistent with, indeed requires, the key concepts of evolution and common descent.
So why is discussion of evolution still saturated with Darwin’s name? In part, I think, because that’s the way his opponents 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 Darwin was puzzled by [whatever], is that not a puzzle to us “Darwinists”? 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 explaining 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 enemies of scientific biology, from Darwin’s Doubt (Meyer, 2013) back to Darwin’s Black Box (Behe, 1996) and beyond. There are other examples, such as The Darwin Conspiracy (Roy Davies, 2006), which portrays Darwin as a plagiarist, and, while checking its details, I discovered 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 further test my idea, I went online to Amazon.com, and typed “Darwin” and “Darwinism” in the search window (I regularly search on Amazon, but prefer to buy from The Book Depository or Wordery). 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. There were 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 those ones go.
God vs. Darwin: The Logical Supremacy of Intelligent Design Creationism Over Evolution (M. S. King, 2015): “Ever since its inception, the edifice of Evolutionary Darwinism has rested upon a foundation of sand, propped up solely by media hype, public ignorance and extreme intellectual bullying.”
Dehumanization: A Product of Darwinism (David Campbell, 2012)
The Dark Side of Charles Darwin (Jerry Bergman, 2011)
Evolution by Intelligent Design: Debate is Over – Darwinism is Extinct (Gabor Lingauer, 2011)
The Deniable Darwin and Other Essays (David Berlinski, 2010; I have written about Berlinski here)
What Darwin Got Wrong (
The Darwin Myth: The Life and Lies of Charles Darwin (Benjamin Wiker, 2009)
Exposing Darwinism’s Weakest Link: Why Evolution Can’t Explain Human Existence (Kenneth Poppe, 2008)
Explore Evolution: The Arguments For and Against NeoDarwinism, (Stephen C. Meyer, Scott Minnich, Jonathan Moneymaker and Paul A. Nelson, 2007; this fraudulently misnamed creationist pseudo-texbook is discussed further here)
Darwin’s Plantation: Evolution’s Racist Roots (Ken Ham and A. Charles Ware, 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 him as a creationist, although he would deny this)
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)
What Darwin Didn’t Know: A Doctor Dissects the Theory of Evolution (
Darwinism, Design and Public Education (John Angus Campbell and Stephen C. Meyer, 2003) Blurb: if science education is to be other than state-sponsored propaganda, a distinction must be drawn between empirical science and materialist philosophy.
Darwinism and the Rise of Degenerate Science (Paul Back, 2003) Blurb: many of the constructs of evolution are based on fantasies devoid of scientific credibility.
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) Abortion. Euthanasia. Infanticide. Sexual promiscuity. And it’s all Darwin’s fault.
Darwinism Under The Microscope: How recent scientific evidence points to divine design (James P. Gills, 2002)
Darwin’s God: Evolution and the Problem of Evil (Cornelius G. Hunter, 2002)
Darwin’s Demise (
Shattering the Myths of Darwinism (Richard Milton, 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)
Darwin’s Leap of Faith: Exposing the False Religion of Evolution (John Ankerberg and John Weldon, 1998)
Darwin’s Enigma (Blurb: No legitimate fossil evidence exists that shows one species changing into another
Defeating Darwinism by Opening Minds (Phillip E. Johnson, 1997)
Darwin’s Black Box (Michael Behe, 1996)
In the Minds of Men: Darwin and the New World Order (Ian T. Taylor, 1996) Blurb: Creation Moments is pleased to bring you what has been hailed as the classic work on the creation-evolution issue!
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)
And so on, all the way back to The Refutation of Darwinism: And the Converse Theory of Development; Based Exclusively Upon Darwin’s Facts (T Warren O’Neill, 1879)
Kitzmiller v Dover Area School District, in which judgment was pronounced on 20th December 2005, is the court case that established that Intelligent Design is not science, but a form of religiously motivated creationism, and as such may not be taught in publicly funded schools in the US. This is a shortened version of what I told the students at Texas Academy of Mathematics and Science, University of North Texas’s early admissions programme, whom I was privileged to be teaching at the time of the trial. I have omitted my discussion of the embarrassing Intelligent Design pseudotext, Of Pandas and People, and the even more embarrassing statement that the Dover School Board instructed teachers to read, for reasons of space and because I have discussed them here before. I have tried to avoid rewriting in the light of what I have learnt since, but insert some comments for clarity, and links where relevant.
But what is really extraordinary about this presentation is, that it is necessary at all. Having been a hundred years in the making, the central notions of evolutionary biology erupted into public awareness a century and a half ago, and, over the following 50 years, the major religious groups of the industrialised world came to terms with these ideas. The creationist challenge to what has been, for over a century, the central theoretical framework of biology, is a recent development, and, very specifically, a 20th-century American phenomenon. Very recently, creationism has changed its name to Intelligent Design Theory, but this is a purely cosmetic change.
I expect that this talk will please no one. I will, as you might expect, argue against Intelligent Design arguments. Indeed, I will go much further, claiming that such arguments are part of a particular kind of mindset, which I will call literalism (although some call it fundamentalism), and that the rise of this mindset represents a most serious threat to knowledge.
When a majority of Americans polled reject the central concepts of mainstream modern biological science, something is very badly wrong. I will also argue that the scientific establishment has contributed to this disaster (and when a majority of the American public deny the plain facts of biology, this is a disaster) through its own ineptitude and philosophically muddled teaching. I will argue that literalism is a harking back to a prescientific mode of thought, that is systematically distorts the way in which its practitioners view the world, and that it represents a seriously impoverished approach at the spiritual level and the level of human affairs, as well as being completely hostile to the spirit and practice of science.
The standard picture of modern biology, as I will call it, stems from the work of Linnaeus who in 1737 establish the classification that we still follow into species, genera, et cetera. It was not long before Buffon and others started explaining similarity in terms of family resemblance. A critical stage in this development took place in the mid-19th century, with the idea that species originate through descent with variation, followed by competition between the different variants. We associate this insight with Charles Darwin’s publication of The Origin of Species, but the fact that the same key ideas were independently discovered by Alfred Russel Wallace suggests that this was an idea for which the time was ripe. The entire evolutionary position is still sometimes referred to as “Darwinism”, especially by its opponents, but this is completely unhistorical, and the expression should be reserved for the specific ideas put forward by Darwin, Wallace, Thomas Huxley, and others in the mid-19th century. Current evolutionary theory is a much refined and altered version of this, much as present day atomic theory is a much refined and altered version of that used by mid-19th century chemists.
The immediate upshot of Darwin’s publication was intense debate between those who welcomed it as a major scientific advance, and those who saw it as a threat to established ideas in religion, and in particular to the authority of the Bible. In Europe, and particularly in Britain, the debate was played out in the next few decades, and led to general acceptance by the churches of the correctness of the evolutionist position, and reinterpretation of Genesis in terms of allegory. Darwin himself lies buried in Westminster Abbey.
Since that time, the argument for evolution has enormously strengthened, in ways that Darwin and Wallace could not have foreseen. The work of Grigor Mendel and his successors gave us a science of genetics, which shows how it was possible for variations to be passed on undiluted from one generation to another. We can understand how the necessary variation arises, because we know about mutations, and since the work of Franklin, Crick, and Watson in 1953, we even know the nature of the genetic material. In Darwin’s time, there were massive gaps in the fossil record, so large in fact that Wallace continued to believe that humanity was a separate creation, rather than having common ancestry with the apes. By now, we have a whole range of intermediate forms, so much so that there is held the ongoing debate among anthropologists and paleontologists as to which ones lie on our direct line of ancestry, and which represent evolutionary dead ends. We have the discovery of deep time, necessary for evolution, and the development of about a dozen separate, mutually consistent, methods of radioactive dating, which enable us to assign dates to fossils, going back over 3 billion years. Finally, and most convincingly, we have the development of DNA sequencing, which makes it possible to give a quantitative estimate of how long different species have been developing separately, and the family relationships discovered in this way bear a remarkable closeness to the family resemblances observable when we classify present-day organisms, and to the distances between branches of the evolutionary tree, as displayed by similarity of features and the fossil record.
I was therefore amazed, on arriving in Texas in 1988, to discover that in the minds of many Americans these matters were still in dispute, and since then I have been appalled at the increasing expression, for largely political ends, of the view that evolution is seriously in doubt, and even that creationism should be offered in biology classes in schools.
I fear that the usual reaction of us scientists including myself until recently, has been to ask “How can anyone believe anything so stupid?”, and then not wait for an answer. Or, alternatively, to put forward reasoned defenses of the evolutionist position, as I have spent the past few minutes doing, without stopping to examine the thinking of their opponents. The result is an outpouring of writings by scientists, for scientists, which are either ignored by the creationists, or, worse, mined for phrases that can be used against us. What I plan to do today and henceforth, is to take a rather different approach, to suggest that the opposition to evolutionist biology depends on what I shall call “literalism”, and to contrast the methods of literalism with those of science. I shall argue that literalism extends far beyond the usual biblical context that we associate with the word, that literalists will regard as legitimate kinds of argument which to scientists seem downright dishonest, and that through failure to understand the nature of literalism, we scientists and science educators give ammunition to our enemies. We are losing the public relations battle because we have not taken the trouble to understand what we are up against.
We (and by we, I mean the whole of mainstream science) are at war, and don’t know it. This is why I am urging scientists to play attack, rather than defense. If an adversary who is determined not to be convinced demands more evidence, there is no point in trying to give it to him. He will complain of the inadequacy of any volume of evidence, and will always be able to ask for more, in much the same way that the coal companies keep on demanding more evidence for global warming. For example, if you point the fossil record as evidence, the creationist will point out that there are times in the fossil record, and however detailed the evidence may be that you offer, there will still be gaps. If you fall for this ploy, you will always be on the defensive, and your opponent will always seem to an outsider to have the stronger case. As I shall show later by example, what you should do is to ask the creationist why, in his scheme of things, there is any fossil record at all.
Firstly, let me define my terms. By literalism, I mean the belief that it is possible to find out the truth about things by closely examining words. By creationism, I mean the belief that separate species or groupings represent separate acts of divine intervention. Since there is only one serious candidate for the role of Intelligent Designer, and since proponents of Intelligent Design never give us any details of how the designs come to be embodied, I think we must conclude that is simply a form of creationism that dare not speak its name. By absolutism, I mean the belief that it is possible to arrive at a final absolute statement of the truth. Absolutists generally believe, although logically they do not really have to, that they themselves happen to be the ones in this fortunate position.
We need some terms for the contrary positions. I shall refer to the opinion that all living things on Earth share a common ancestry as the standard picture. I will use the term fallibilists for those who believe that, except perhaps in certain areas of mathematics or of direct experience, absolute certainty is not of this world, that some degree of uncertainty attaches itself to all their opinions, and that they are certainly wrong about many things, although they don’t know which. In their working lives, at least, all scientists are fallibilists. That is because we care about the facts, and our experience shows that the facts can prove us wrong. This position leaves no room in science for absolutism or literalism. Nor should we want there to be, since reality is more interesting, subtle, and complex than our ability to describe it.
I think you can already see how this is going to play out. Scientists will, ideally at least, make carefully qualified statements, judiciously spelling out the degree of uncertainty in their opinions, and emphasising their willingness to change their beliefs in the face of new evidence. That’s because we care about the facts. They will maintain, correctly, that literalist arguments are devoid of scientific merit, and will naïvely imagine that that settles the matter. Literalists will often be absolutists, and will attribute the cautious way in which scientists use words to lack of conviction. The literalist will freely quote the scientist out of context. The scientist will complain that this is dishonest, that his or her meaning is being distorted, but the literalist will reply, in all sincerity, that he cannot be faulted for simply citing what was actually said. If the scientist regards the literalist at this point as dishonest, the literalist will regard the scientist as evasive. The result is that we have a cottage industry based on literalist quotation mining, and a counter-industry in which the defenders of science try to keep up by mending the fractures, and putting the quotations back in context.
All this seems to me a symptom of a deeper problem. The fallibilist will assume that the conversation is in the last resort a cooperative effort, a kind of conversation, with both parties interested in winding up a little bit closer to the truth. The absolutist believes he knows the truth already. For him, the conversation is a competitive debate, where the aim of each party is to vanquish the other. The absolutist will therefore play by rules closer to those of the law court that the laboratory. He knows the truth, and all he has to do is to make the case for it. His job is to assemble all the materials, good, bad, and indifferent, that supports his own case and to trash any counter arguments made by their opponents. Faced with these tactics, scientists will believe themselves to be the victims of conscious intellectual dishonesty, and may even withdraw from the debate.
Literalism has various attractive features, some of which I have already mentioned. There is certainty, provided one can convince oneself that one has interpreted the text correctly. There is power, if you can convince other people of your superior ability to interpret the sacred texts. There is finality, since once something has been said, with sufficient authority, the issue is regarded as settled once and for all. There is a sense of comradeship and shared purpose with those that use the same texts as you do. Some literalists go so far as to believe that everybody who agrees with them will go to heaven, and everyone who disagrees will go to hell. A powerful consideration, which may well distort anyone’s judgment. For American audiences in particular, there is the ever popular illusion of individualism; this is what I believe, dammit, and no pointy head is going to tell me different. Above all, literalism gives you an easy way of resolving complex issues. It deals with words instead of dealing with things. When presented with a thing, the literalist will put it in a box, put a label on the box, and then decide how to deal with the thing by reading the label.
I argued that literalism is intellectually bankrupt in the area of biblical exegesis, quoting 2 Corinthians 3:6: “the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life” and pointing, much in the spirit of Maimonides, to texts that surely were never meant to be taken literally. My first example was day and night on Day One of Genesis, but no sun and moon until the fourth day.
How could you have alternating day and night before you had sun and moon? I ran this argument by a literalist, with whom I had a long and informative correspondence, and he said, more or less, no problem: God can turn the lights on and off whenever He feels like it. Fair enough, perhaps, but notice that if you argue like that, you cannot pretend to be doing science. By invoking God’s will in this way, you can explain absolutely anything, you can never be proved wrong, and your idea can never be tested against the facts.
The poet John Donne gives, as an example of what humanity does not understand, “Why grass is green, or why our blood is red”. Oddly enough, one of my own first scientific papers helped answer this very question. But using Intelligent Design logic, there is nothing that needs to be explained. Why is grass green, why is blood red? Because the Intelligent Designer so designed it. Why is blood green, why is grass red? Same answer. Intelligent Design theory can explain anything, which means that it explains nothing. It leads to a total end of questioning, since all questions have the same answer. And the death of questioning is the death of science.
I then considered other examples; God being said (Genesis 6:6, I Samuel 15:35) to have changed his mind and repeatedly in Exodus to have hardened Pharaoh’s heart. If you believe in a God who is all-knowing and just, these verses cannot mean what they say. Such arguments, I said, date back to the time of Maimonides, are independent of modern science, and serve to show that biblical literalism is bankrupt on its own terms. I have since discovered the existence of a broad swathe of religious opinion, displayed by Biologos, Evolution Weekend, and the American Scientific Affiliation, who argue in much the same way. I regard the believers in these groups as my natural allies in combating creationism, however much we may differ on other matters.
I said earlier that defenders of the standard picture should stop playing defense, and go on to the attack. It is high time that I did so, and I will proceed by taking Intelligent Design at its word and evaluating it as I would any other scientific theory.
It is difficult to work out what Intelligent Design really means, because its advocates never tell us how it’s supposed to work, but I shall assume that it means that there is a Designer, capable of imposing his design on matter, and that this designer is extremely intelligent. Regarded on its own terms of scientific theory, Intelligent Design theory does make one clear prediction. It predicts that organisms should be intelligently designed. But they’re not.
I stand before you today as living proof of this sad fact. If a freshman engineering student were to turn in my body plan as an assignment, he or she would be gently taken aside by the instructor, and advised to seek some other way of making a living. I sprain my ankle and I twist my knee. I have lower back pain as my disks are squeezed under the weight of my body. My nose gets congested, and my sinuses, with no good way of draining, are a haven for germs. My eyes are back to front, with the blood vessels in front of the retina, getting in the way of the light. I had a dreadful time getting born and millions of children, some of whom I have known, have had an even harder time of it, and ended up permanently brain-damaged.
All of these things are exactly what you’d expect on the standard evolutionary account. We have superposed upright posture on a skeleton originally evolved for walking on four legs. The blood vessels in our eyes trace their ancestry back to the blood vessels of the skin, while the light sensitive cells of the retina are outgrowths of the brain. Over the past few million years, all we simians have been living on our wits, in extremely complex social groups, producing strong evolutionary pressure to enlarge our brains, and in our species in particular this will have been intensified by the ability to make more complex sounds. As a result, our brains have grown forward over our snouts, distorting the shape of our air passages, as well as pressing up during birth against the constraints of the pelvic skeleton. Evolution fits the facts, and may perhaps be correct. Intelligent Design doesn’t fit the facts, and can’t be.
And how about the use of design as an explanation? Let us take Paley’s (1802) classic example, a watch. From the discovery of a watch, we would infer an intelligent designer. But that is not the end of the matter. We would have to further infer that this intelligent designer had access to processes, by which material could be shaped to match the design. Invoking the designer would have to be the beginning of a chain of explanation, not the end of it. Otherwise the whole process is what I have called antiscience, since it tells us to stop thinking when we come across something that we do not understand, which is just when things get really interesting.
This illustrates a general point, and one that I think is of great importance. Advocates of Intelligent Design spend much time drawing our attention to aspects of biology where they see weaknesses in the conventional account. We should be grateful to them for this, but our response should be the exact opposite of what they suggest. We should not view these problems as defeats for naturalistic science, but as opportunities and challenges. Thus several systems which a decade ago appeared irreducibly complex, now appear understandable in relation to simpler components.
Here, I suggest, we have a potent winning strategy; by staying true to ourselves as falllibilists, we make our opponents’ weapons turn against them. We don’t pretend that we know the answer when we don’t, but we can look for it and may even find it. The creationist, on the other hand, already has an answer. He has no need to look, and will find out nothing.
Science feeds on unexplained facts as opportunity and challenge. Science questions. Intelligent Design answers all questions. Therefore Intelligent Design makes science unnecessary. Is that what we want?
In discussion, I predicted that the case would be appealed all the way to the Supreme Court. I was wrong. Judge E. Jones III’s ruling is only binding in the middle district of Pennsylvania, but is such powerful opinion that it is unlikely to be challenged unless at some later date the US Supreme Court acquires a creationist majority.
An earlier version of this post appeared on 3 Quarks Daily
December 20th is the tenth anniversary of the delivery of judgement in Kitzmiller v. Dover, an important anniversary for proponents of evolution science, and Nick Matzke, who coordinated the National Center for Science Education’s efforts at that trial, has celebrated it in the most appropriate possible manner. He has applied the methods of evolutionary tree building to the development of creationism itself in the intervening decade. The results are alarming.
The case arose when Tammy Kitzmiller and the other parents challenged the decision of Dover Area School District Board to introduce the Intelligent Design pseudotext Of Pandas and People to their High School, along with a statement urging students to retain an open mind about Intelligent design as an alternative to Darwin’s theory”. Since the matter has been extensively discussed by me and numerous others, I will simply say that Pandas was an incoherent attack on evolution science, full of factual and logical errors, and that the statement to be read misdescribed evolution as a theory about the origin of life, and claimed that since it was a theory it was uncertain, and, moreover, that there were gaps missing from it. Drafts subpoenaed for the trial also showed that the text had originally referred to “creation science”, being hastily modified when an earlier case established that “creation science” was simply another name for religious creationism.
The case is significant as a test of the creationist claim that Intelligent Design is not a form of religious creationism, but, on the contrary, legitimate science. Judge Jones’s magnificent rejection of this claim runs to 139 legal pages; in brief, he found that this claim was baseless, the textbook error laden, the Designer no other than Christian God (in whom, incidentally, Judge Jones believes), and the arguments offered as evidence for Design scientifically worthless. For this and other reasons, he declared ID to be “a religious view, a mere re-labeling of creationism, and not a scientific theory.” It followed, under the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution, that it should not be taught in any publicly funded school. Strictly, Judge Jones’s ruling is only binding in the Middle Circuit of the State of Pennsylvania, but such is the force of its arguments that I do not imagine any challenge elsewhere, unless the US Supreme Court at some future time falls into the hands of creationists.
The creationist response has been to seek yet another, less easily penetrated, form of disguise for their activities. Instead of promoting clearly defined positions, which could be subjected to legal scrutiny, they now speak of teaching the controversy, and put forward so-called Academic Freedom Bills, which invite critical examination of evolution. Who, after all, is opposed to freedom? Shouldn’t students be aware of controversy? And why should evolution be shielded from critical examination? Scientifically speaking, of course, there is no controversy, and neither teachers nor students require special legislative permission before critically examining any concept. So the purpose is, clearly, to provide a figleaf for those who want to claim that the basic concepts of evolution are uncertain, or that creationism provides a worthy alternative.
We have had, in the past decade, 71 of these Academic Freedom Bills introduced, in 16 separate states, and passed into law in 3, while the strategy has evolved as the creationist community has learned from its successes and failures. Matzke’s achievement has been to map this evolution. I imagine no one better qualified. He was the lead member of the National Center for Science Education teisam at the trial. Since then, he has attained a Ph.D. at University of California Berkeley, and spent two years as a post-doc at the National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis (NIMBioS), housed at the University of Tennessee. He is now recognised as a rising star in his field; a Discovery Early Career Researcher Award Fellow at the Australian National University and the author of some 30 scientific papers on topics related to evolution, with attention also to science education, and to the human impact on the environment.
Matzke has special expertise in molecular phylogeny, the technique by which differences in DNA are used to construct family trees. The basic principle is simple; that a mutation that became established in one species will, unless eliminated by chance, be found in its descendants. We can use such shared mutations to pick out groups of more closely related species, and the family relationships established in this way generally show excellent agreement with the relationships established long since on the basis of anatomical homologies and the fossil record.
Not surprisingly, we can apply the same principle to manuscripts, and Dennis Venema, one of my favourite writers on evolution, has compared the two kinds of application in his series of articles, Genomes as Ancient Texts. But what did surprise me was to learn that the method was applied to mediaeval legal documents as early as 1827, although now texts are examined using programs and criteria of the same kind as those in use to establish DNA phylogenies (see Phylomemetics – Evolutionary Analysis beyond the Gene, free download here). Similar reasoning has been applied to languages since 1850, and both Charles Lyell and Charles Darwin drew attention to the similarities between biological and linguistic evolutionary trees.
What Matzke has now done is to apply the principle to the content of the antievolution bills discussed above. Unfortunately, the paper in which he presents his findings, in the prestigious journal Science, is behind a pay wall, although the National Center for Science Education has published a summary, and NIMBioS has put out a very informative press release, with further accounts in Scientific American podcasts, the Washington Post, and the media company Vocativ.
Anyway, here is what he says, and why it matters.
We can construct a family tree for these antiscience bills. Until around 2006, they were described as Academic Freedom Acts and discuss the teaching of evolution and the origin of life. (Logically, this is a total muddle, since biological evolution does not address the origins of life, any more than chemistry addresses the origin of atoms. Rhetorically, though, it’s a smart move. Creationists often accuse biology teachers of presenting as fact highly speculative theories regarding the origins of life, and although it is decades since biology textbooks did this, mud sticks.) In 2006, an extremely alarming development took place. Ouachita Parish, Louisiana (a Louisiana Parish is much the same thing as a County in other States) developed a policy, in what they renamed a Science Education Act, that lumped together evolution, the origins of life, global warming, and human cloning. The mention of human cloning is purely for effect; we are, and I hope we will choose to remain, a long way from being able to do any such thing, and if we do it will not be in the school science lab. However, it rightly raises alarm.
One truly insidious development is the addition of global warming to the mix. In the US, although not in the UK, the doctrinally conservatism that leaves to creationism is associated with extreme political conservatism, a deep devotion to free markets and suspicion of government, and rejection of the science of global warming, because it implies the need for government (and, worse, inter-government) action. Thus there is an excellent correlation, in the US, between evolution rejection by various faith groups and climate change rejection. Since the fall from power of Tony Abbott in Australia, the United States is I believe the only nation in which one major political party denies that global temperatures are rising, and that fossil fuel burning is responsible. Thus we have the embarrassing spectacle of scientifically illiterate congressmen holding hearings to which they invite cranks and outliers, and doing all they can to sabotage the outline climate agreement recently reached in Paris. As I have said here before, evolution denial is ridiculous but climate change denial is dangerous.
Even more worrying to me is the spread of voucher systems, under which the local government does not run the education system itself, but issues vouchers to all eligible schoolchildren, to pay for their education by non-government schools. MSNBC reports that there are hundreds of such schools teaching creationism as a taxpayer’s expense in nine States and the District of Columbia.
And worst of all is the fact that creationism happens because people want it to. Which means in turn that often there is no effective opposition, either in the community or in the classroom. According to an article in Science, Defeating Creationism in the Courtroom, But Not in the Classroom (2011, 331:404, paywall), timed to roughly match the 5th anniversary of Kitzmiller, around 11% of US biology teachers actually teach creationism, 28% teach evolution according to guidelines, and the remaining 60% avoid the topic because they do not feel prepared to deal with the hostile questioning that it will evoke. Top down imposition of evolution may, alas, be necessary, but it is certainly not sufficient.
Comic relief time: This work has not received universal approbation. At the mendaciously mistitled Evolution News and Views, no less a person than John G. West, political scientist, acolyte of C. S. Lewis, and Vice President of the Discovery Institute, goes to the heart of the matter:
Did Nick Matzke Misuse National Science Foundation Money Intended to Fund Science Research?
Professor West has done us all the great service of looking up the grants that funded Matzke during this work. One of them, he reveals, was earmarked for studying the phylogeny of shellfish. But creationists are not shellfish, so Nick has been very, very naughty. This is not the first time that Discovery Institute fellows have found it necessary to rebuke him. Casey Luskin has pointed out that he is known to have actually received money from the National Center for Science Education (he was employed by them at the time), so no wonder he supports evolution. And two days later David Berlinski criticised him for criticising Stephen Meyer for not using cladistics, because Berlinski thinks you shouldn’t use cladistics, because if you imagine that a cladogram is a geometrical, rather than merely a topological, representation, you can get the wrong answer. (As it happens, the only time I have met this mistake is in the pages of Of Pandas and People, which is roughly where we came in). You can find the whole shocking story here, and I hope that Nick takes these lessons to heart.
1] In the case of biological species, things can get a little more complicated, if only because we are dealing with interbreeding groups, within which genetic material is duplicated and shuffled, rather than unique copies. So species can split while still carrying more than one version of a gene. For example, the genes coding for Type A and Type B blood groups arose by mutation from a common ancestor, at some time more remote than the common ancestor of humans and chimpanzees, and both types were present on both sides of the chimp-human split. Thus a human with blood type A will, with respect to just that single gene, be more closely related to a chimp with the homologous blood type than to a human of blood type B. For this reason, all evolutionary trees are fuzzy. There is also the matter of horizontal transfer, in both biological and meme evoultion.
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.
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.