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Even on his birthday, don’t say Darwin unless you mean it (updated)

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

Darwinstree

From Darwin’s Notebook B, 1837

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caused the phenomena they were talking about, and both would be delighted at how thoroughly their own work has been superseded.

 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

DaltonAtoms

From John Dalton’s A New System of Chemical Philosophy (1808)

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. Worse still, he was hopelessly 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. Shot through with errors and inconsistencies; 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.

Finally, he saw evolution as driven by natural selection, embracing Herbert Spencer’s reference to “the survival of the fittest”, whereas now it is increasingly apparent that much evolution depends on neutral drift, and that major evolutionary changes may even require passing through marginally less fit intermediates (see my next post here). So, ironically, the term “Darwinian evolution”, describing as it does evolution driven by natural selection, is now used in the scientific literature to refer to just one special case.

And while we’re on the subject of how words are used, don’t say “theory of evolution” when you mean the well-established facts of change over time and 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.

And don’t say that you “believe in” evolution. It’s not a matter of believing, with its suggestion of committing oneself beyond the evidence; it’s a matter of accepting where that evidence leads.

“Accepting”, indeed, might be a very useful word, especially when dealing with religiously motivated creationist students. If such a student accepts that the evidence points towards evolution, and understands why, then any religiously motivated inner reservations are a matter for the student, not for you.

ExploreEvolutionBut back to Darwin. Why is discussion of evolution still saturated with his 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. Recently, creationists have even 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, whereby anything that puzzled Darwin can be used to undermine 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 …

DarwinsBlackBox 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 Better World Books 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. The most recent entry (December 2016) is one I heard about through the Discovery Institute, who also published it.

Darwin's House of Cards: A Journalist's Odyssey Through the Darwin Debates by [Bethell, Tom]

Darwin’s House of Cards: A Journalist’s Odyssey Through the Darwin Debates, 2016, by Tom Bethell who “presents a concise yet wide-ranging tour of the flash points of modern evolutionary theory, investigating controversies over common descent, natural selection, the fossil record, biogeography, information theory, evolutionary psychology, artificial intelligence, and the growing intelligent design movement.” Bethell is a philosophy graduate, despite which he repeats the myth [2] that Popper regarded evolution as mere tautology.

DarwinsDoubtGod 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.”

Darwin’s Doubt (Meyer, 2013) For the fashioning of this phrase in the creationist quote mine, see here. For Donald Prothero‘s devastating review of the book, see here.

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

The Dark Side of Charles Darwin (Jerry Bergman, 2011) Blurb: “A single man stands behind the greatest deception in history.”

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

The Darwin Myth: The Life and Lies Charles Darwin by [Wiker, Benjamin]The Deniable Darwin and Other Essays (David Berlinski, 2010; I have written about Berlinski here)

What Darwin Got Wrong (Jerry Fodor and Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini, 2010) Apparently based on confusion between mutation, source of novelty, and selection, imposer of value.

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 on the Briths Centre for Science Education website.

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)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Darwin Didn’t Know: A Doctor Dissects the Theory of Evolution (Geoffrey Simmons, 2004) Blurb: What Darwin Didn’t Know shows the human body to be a marvellous system constructed by an infinitely wise Designer.

DarwinismDesignDarwinism, 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) It’s just an excuse for atheism.

Darwin’s Demise (Md. Comninellis Nicholas and Joe White, 2001)

Shattering the Myths of Darwinism (Richard Milton, 2000)

WahtsDarwinGotWhat’s Darwin Got to Do with It?: A Friendly Discussion About Evolution (between a bright young creationist and a stuffy stooge; Robert C. Newman, John L. Wiester and Janet Moneymaker, 2000)

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

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

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

Darwin’s Leap of Faith: Exposing the False Religion of Evolution (John Ankerberg and John Weldon, 1998)

Darwin’s Enigma (Luther Sunderland, 1998) 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)

TheRefutationIn 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)

This version is an expansion of what appeared on 3 Quarks Daily, 6 Feb 2017

1] Betsy DeVos herself has not ccommented publicly on the issue. When asked about junk science teaching at her confirmation hearing, she said that she supports science teaching that “allows students to exercise critical thinking.” In the US,this unexceptionable objective is code for teaching, as if scientifically valid, denialist objections to evolution and climate change science.

2] At one point, Popper described Darwinism as “not a testable scientific theory, but a metaphysical research programme—a possible framework for testable scientific theories.” However, as other passages show, he is using “Darwinism” here in its proper restrictive sense of the theory that evolution is driven by the survival of the fittest. Popper repeatedly made clear his acceptance of the historical fact of evolution; for a full discussion see here.

Casey Luskin leaves Discovery Institute; I will miss him

Center_for_Science_and_Culture_(logo)Casey Luskin has just announced his departure from the Discovery Institute, in order to further his studies. We will miss the enlightenment that he brings. For example, in his farewell piece, he tells us that

Evolutionary biologists are now admitting we need “post-Darwinian” models to explain the Cambrian explosion.

Casey is right; we really do need “post-Darwinian” models to explain the Cambrian explosion. Things like Mendelian inheritance, mutation, population genetics, and, in this context, palaeogeochemistry, which is why evolutionary biologists have been decidedly post-Darwinian since around 1905.

Casey does not tell us what he is going to study, but I rather hope that it will be chemistry. Then, in due course, he will be fully equipped to explain to us that Dalton couldn’t even get the structure of water right, that Faraday’s electrical theory of bonding needs to be revised in the light of quantum mechanics, that many of the postulated intermediates in chemical reactions have never even been observed, that (as predicted by Intelligent Alchemy) many of Lavoisier’s elements turn out not to be elements at all, and that our schools should allow students to evaluate for themselves the unwarranted metaphysical assumptions of chemical materialism, and the merits of the phlogiston theory.

Disclosure: unlike many far better people, I have been insulted by Casey only once, when he accused me and the British Centre for Science Education of concealing our atheism for tactical reasons. Guilty as charged; we conceal it so well that one of BCSE’s most prominent members at the time, now its official spokesman, is an Anglican priest. Devious, these evolutionists. You need to watch them.

Casey, you will be sadly missed.

Update; more here: http://pandasthumb.org/archives/2016/01/luskin-i-am-lea.html The word is that he will be replaced by Ann Gauger, who knows more biochemistry and therefore has, and uses, a  much greater capacity for misunderstanding.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cover of the Wedge Document.

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

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

Dear [first name]:

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

Not if the data challenges Darwinian evolution.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Miller-Urey experiment (1953).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This post may be freely reproduced in whole or in part for non-commercial purposes.


[1] Personal communication

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

Part I,Dalton and Darwin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Refs


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

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

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

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