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International attention for Scotland’s refusal to ban teaching of creationism

Our petitionScottish Parliament: Return to homepage continues to gather international attention., appearing here on Why Evolution is True, a mass audience blog run by Jerry Coyne, author of the book of that name, one of my favourites on the topic. This in the wake of  attention from the Sensuous Curmudgeon, whose skewering of creationism has earned him over 3 million hits.
The Scottish Government statement is not the end of the matter. The Committee will be discussing it again in January, and the fact that a civil servant, not a Minister, signed the statement may make it easier for the Government to think again.
So, especially if you are a parent, educator, or pupil/recent pupil in Scotland, and above all if you have witnessed the damaging effects of creationist teaching in any context, please send a short (one or two paragraph) submission the Petitions Committee at citing Petition PE01530

Why Evolution Is True

Schools in England and Wales aren’t permitted to teach creationism, but for reasons that I can’t fathom, the Scots refuse to join them. This came to light when, as reported by Scotland’s Sunday Herald, the Scottish Secular Society (SSS) discovered that a group of American creationists “had been working as classroom assistants at a primary school in East Kilbride, South Lanarkshire.” (Note: it’s not clear whether this group actually taught creationism as science.)

The SSS petitioned the Scottish Parliament requesting explicit guidance on this issue (i.e., banning creationism the same way it’s done in the rest of the UK), but were turned back with this disappointing statement by a government official:

Tim Simons, Head of Curriculum Unit at the Scottish Government’s Learning Directorate, has written to the parliament’s petitions committee that there are no plans to introduce ban guidance called for by the SSS.

Mr Simmons [sic] said: “I can…

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Sex, education, Pam Stenzel (Pt 2), evolution, and reality, with a footnote on the Faroes

A few days ago I reported , cued by Garry Otton’s eye-witness account on the Scottish Secular Society web page, on a nightmarish “sex education” lecture delivered in Paisley, near Glasgow, to an audience of schoolchildren rounded up from all the Catholic schools in the district, by the abstinence-only campaigner Pam Stenzel. The story has since been picked up and further commented on by the Daily Record, a popular Glasgow-based newspaper with a circulation of over ¼  million, and featured on the BBC. You may recall that Ms Stenzel is based in California, and that her crusade (that seems to be the correct word) against sex outside one partnership per lifetime is endorsed by Sean Hannity and the Family Life Council. Also that she imposes her own very personal view on facts. Notably, she tells us that HPV can cause cancer, and that vaccination only protects against four of the many strains. True, and bound to be true, since the vaccine is, by design, specific against the strains most liable to cause cancer. Of course, if disease prevention were her real concern, she would be advocating Pap smears and condom use. But such reality-based information is not on her agenda.

So what has this got to do with evolution, and in particular with what we know about what Pam Stenzel has been told about evolution? Absolutely everything.

The only professional qualification mentioned on Ms Stenzel’s website is a degree in psychology, from Liberty University. This institution, founded by Jerry Falwell Sr. and rescued early in its life from bankruptcy by the Rev Sung Myung Moon, is regarded as among the most conservative institutions of higher education in the US. “Conservative” in this context means, among other things, commitment to a biblical literalist theology. Even more, in the case of LibertyUniversity; commitment to a version of reality in which Young Earth creationism is better science than all that stuff about radiometric dating and strata and unconformities and deep time that stupid people like you and me find so convincing. This commitment is embodied in an Institution for Creation Studies (yes, that really is what it is called), whose course “History of Life” is obligatory for all students, and whose stated function ( is “to promote the development of a consistent biblical view of origins in our students. The center seeks to equip students to defend their faith in the creation account in Genesis using science, reason and the Scriptures.”

So Ms Stenzel may not have learned very much about the biology of sexually transmitted diseases, but she will certainly have learned how to use what she does know to defend a pre-determined faith-based position. This is called, in the language that Liberty University uses to describe its position on the age of the earth, “perspective”. She has faith that God has told us that having more than one sexual partner in a lifetime is wrong (He doesn’t seem to have given quite the same message to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, but let that pass). So this is the conclusion, and it only remains to muster the evidence. The resulting concatenation of half-baked horror stories may only occasionally make contact with reality, but that’s not the point; it defends her faith, and that is the one thing that she has been admirably equipped to do. Nor, I’m sure, is she being consciously dishonest. There is black and white, right and wrong, safe and unsafe, so if condoms are not entirely safe (they’re not), we should not be telling young people to use them. On this logic, we shouldn’t be telling them to use seat belts, because they won’t always save your neck, and if everyone drove perfectly safely we wouldn’t need them, either.

Bonobo_sexual_behavior_1 (1) And I bet she doesn’t know about bonobos.

Footnote: a few months ago, Jerry Coyne reported with justifiable pride that his site, Why Evolution is True, had just got its first hit from Greenland (population 56,000). On Wednesday, I got my own first hit from the Faroe Islands (population 49,000). Beat that, Jerry!

[Image source:JaxZoo_12-16-12-4579.jpg through This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jerry Coyne in Glasgow on Why Evolution is True, an unauthorised summary

This is my unauthorised summary of the talk that Jerry Coyne gave to the Glasgow Skeptics on Monday, November 26. It is no substitute for reading his outstanding book, Why Evolution is True, but I for one found it useful to see the arguments collated so succinctly.

Jerry discussed the distinction between the common and the scientific use of the terms “true” and “theory”. True, he suggested, means so well supported by evidence that it would be perverse to deny it. In principle all scientific truths are provisional because revisable, but IMO that is no reason for scientists to sound tentative all the time, since the same can be said of all our claims to knowledge about the world. Theories in science, as he very clearly explained, are the conceptual frameworks that we set up to make sense of facts, but in contrast to the common use of the word carry no suggestion of uncertainty. Examples are atomic theory, and the germ theory of disease, as well as the theory of evolution. He then went on to say that evolution had moved from theory to fact. This I think is a philosophical category mistake, though I am not sure that this matters to anyone except philosophers. I prefer to distinguish between the facts of evolution (e.g. the historical facts of shared ancestry) and the theory (referring to a historical context, or else meaning specifically the overarching conceptual framework).

The theory of evolution has five components:

  • Evolution, i.e. change in populations, happens.
  • The process is gradual, taking hundreds or thousands of years, or longer.
  • Evolution leads to speciation, i.e. to the separation of an ancestral species into two descendants.
  • As a corollary, distinct species share common ancestors, and indeed all life on Earth shares a common ancestry.
  • Natural selection is a major driver of evolution, and is the sole process that causes adaptation and the appearance of design.

(I would note here that there is room for fruitful disagreement, since other reputable biologists come up with different definitions. I also wonder whether adaptation, like speciation, is much more easily recognised after the fact, and whether, given the existence of non-adaptive drift, the linking of adaptation to selection is tautologous.)

This theory makes a number of predictions:

  • The first life forms should be simple, with complexity increasing with time in the fossil record.
  • Lineages should change and split. Example, split in Rhizosolenia, an indicator species diatom whose changes can be followed in ocean core samples
  • Common ancestry implies the existence of transitional forms, such as feathered dinosaurs. These need not necessarily be at the actual point of speciation, but can be identified by their possession of some of the traits that became specific to their descendants. Example, Sinornithosaurus, a flightless feathered dinosaur, intermediate between theropods and birds.
  • These transitional forms should appear at the right time in the fossil record. Example, 10 major intermediate forms in the correct order over a 48 million year window between a terrestrial ancestor, identified by details of ear structure, and present-day whales. Another example; the discovery exactly where predicted, in Devonian strata, of lobefish-tetrapod intermediates [see Your Inner Fish, by Jerry’s colleague Neil Shubin]
  • The course of evolution should leave bad designs in place. Examples, the male human prostate which unnecessarily surrounds the urethra and presses up against the bladder; ear wiggling muscles which only some of us can operate
  • We should be able to see evolution occurring, as in Lenski’s work. We have even observed 300 cases, in a relatively short time that we have been carrying out observations. Under strong selection pressure, we can see changes within a single generation, as with the Galapagos finches faced with changes in the kinds of food available.

There are also examples of retrodictions, things that are not strictly predictions, but make sense only in the light of evolution. These include:

  • The appearance in embryos of ancestral features not present in the organism itself. Examples include hindlimb buds on embryo dolphins, and body hair and tail on human embryos.
  • The presence of vestigial organs, such as hindlimb and pelvis bones in the grey whale, unconnected to the rest of the skeleton.
  • The presence of “dead” (identifiable but non-functioning) genes corresponding to capacities present in ancestors but now lost, including, in humans, genes involved in vitamin C synthesis and some of those involved in the development of olfactory receptors. Human embryos at four weeks include a yolk sac, and humans have dead genes for yolk production.
  • Biogeography, including in particular the difference between continental islands, whose fauna relate to that of the landmass to which they were once joined, and oceanic islands, whose endemic fauna are restricted to species such as birds and insects capable of migrating across the open ocean, although other species can flourish and even become plague species when introduced by humans. This is an argument that the creationists have not even attempted to answer.
  • Bad design, as evolution is constrained by its past.

One significant prediction is that we should be able, to the extent that our short observation time permits, to see evolution in action, and this is what happens.

The question of the origin of new information came up in questioning. Jerry gave as an example what happens after gene duplication; the two copies can become selected for different functions, as in the variations of haem proteins. (My own favourite example is the duplication and reduplication giving rise to Photosystems I and II, each of which contain two distinct but related subsystems.)

If evolution is a scientific theory, it must be open to falsification. (Here Jerry follows Popper, whose views I think are now regarded as too simple. Theories of merit are generally modified, or subsumed within larger theories, rather than being simply rejected in the face of counterexamples. I would argue that the theory of evolution has been modified, to include such factors as neutral drift, much as atomic theory has been modified to take account of transmutation, but that such modifications are in no way a sign of weakness.) Possible falsifiers include:

  • Fossils in the wrong place.
  • Adaptations within a species that benefited only some other species, or, more generally, that conveyed no advantage to their possessors or their relatives, or that could not be achieved step-by-step.
  • Absence of genetic variation.

Again, I see room for fruitful disagreement, in particular about what would falsify, and what would merely require minor tinkering. A number of questions come to mind. Would group selection require rejection of the theory, as I think Jerry was close to suggesting?

Jerry Coyne at the Glasgow Skeptics – a personal account

Monday night, November 26, I had the great pleasure of hearing Jerry Coyne at the Glasgow Skeptics on the subject of  Why Evolution is True (And Why Most People Don’t Believe It), and had a short enjoyable chat with him in the interval. This report reflects his views, and on occasion mine. To avoid misunderstanding, I should emphasise that it does not represent BCSE as an organisation, which is neutral on matters of faith.

He was aware of and approved of the broad coalition, ranging from Richard Dawkins to Canons of the Church of England, that forced the UK Government to clarify its position against creationism. I had to tell him that Gove had nonetheless ignored his own guidelines by allowing creationist groups to set up publicly funded schools. We had some discussion about whether different religions had different degrees of tolerance towards evolution; I suggested that the reason I was much more accommodationist than him, is that for me religion suggested positions like C of E, whereas for him it suggested anti-intellectual fundamentalism. He seemed to take kindly to this idea, and also to my suggestion that different varieties of religion may differ greatly in their willingness to accept evolution.

Most of his talk covered much the same ground as his book, Why Evolution is True (a must read if you haven’t already), though I certainly benefited from seeing the argument laid out in such concentrated form, and am posting my notes on this part of the talk separately.

Jerry quoted depressing statistics, mainly from the US, about how few people accepted evolution and how many preferred creationism. According to a 2005 Harris poll, only 12% of Americans thought that only evolution should be taught in schools, while 23% thought that only creationism should be taught, and most wanted both.

Why does this matter? Because evolution is a matter of self-knowledge, basic knowledge about what kind of place the Universe is, and our place in it. It is a wonderful example of science in action, and besides, there’s a lot of cool stuff in there.

After discussing the science, he made some very interesting observations about how societies react to it. Given that the evidence for evolution is so overwhelming, why do so many people continue to deny it, and why are the numbers so slow to change? In the US, since 1982, the proportion of creationists has held steady at 44%, those believing in theistic evolution has changed from 38% to 36%, and the only notable change has been an increase in acceptance of materialistic evolution from 9% to 14%, no doubt reflecting the growing number of unbelievers. (I think that the preference for theistic over naturalistic evolution may be less worrying than it sounds, since I doubt if many people distinguish between overall divine control of nature, which would be perfectly compatible with naturalistic evolution, and specific supernatural intervention in the process, which would not).

Clearly, a situation where more Americans believe in the reality of angels than accept evolution is deeply worrying.

So why is evolution so maligned by religion? Because it undermines religious views of human specialness, and of the purpose and meaning of individual life, and (a common and deeply felt objection) is seen as undermining morality. If we compare different countries, religious belief has a powerful negative correlation with acceptance of evolution. It would follow that if we want people to accept evolution, what we need to do is weaken the influence of religion. In support, Jerry quoted a survey according to which, if faced with a scientific finding that contradicted the tenets of their faith, 64% of Americans said that they would reject the finding.

What I found most interesting was Jerry’s quoting from recent (2009 and 2011) studies, showing that religion correlates with social dysfunction (see ) and economic inequality (see ; cut and paste links if necessary). If so, the way to improve public acceptance of science may be to tackle inequality and social dysfunction. This would point in the direction of very broad alliances indeed, and I can see how recent political campaigns in the US may have made this prospect more attractive.

We are left with a final paradox. People fear evolution, seeing it as subversive of morality. And yet, the more moral (in the matters that seem to me most important), the more equitable, and the more effectively functioning a society, the more accepting it is of evolution.

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