Calderglen High School, a publicly funded school in East Kilbride near Glasgow, has a seven-member chaplaincy team, which, according to the School’s website, “provides for the school a rich and key resource for the curriculum”. The team includes three representatives of Baptist churches, three from the Church of Scotland, and one, Dr. Nagy Iskander, from Westwoodhill Evangelical Church. Generally speaking, the Church of Scotland accepts scientific reality, while views within the Baptist churches vary. So what of Dr. Iskander, who holds the balance?
On the school website, he says
I am interested in Science and the Bible and always happy to tackle questions in this area, so please feel free to contact me about any questions regarding Science and the Christian faith.
What he does not say is that he is an out and out supporter of biblical literalism, singled out for praise by Answers in Genesis, and a welcome visitor and occasional speaker at Ken Ham’s Creation Museum in Kentucky, where you will learn that the fossil record is a result of Noah’s Flood, and that “Biblical history is the key to understanding dinosaurs.” You will also find on the AiG web site recorded lectures by Dr Iskander, in which he states that belief in the literal truth of Genesis is foundational to Christianity. As for the relationship between Science and the Bible, Dr. Iskander had this to say to his local newspaper, on the occasion of Answers in Genesis’ Scottish Conference this month:
Both the creationists and evolutionists have the same facts – we have the same earth, the same geological layers, the same fossils – but when we examine the facts we might come to different conclusions, depending on our starting point.
And in case you are charitable enough to see some wriggle room here (note that weasel word “might”) for reconciling science with Dr. Iskander’s view of religion, consider this, from his statement to a reporter from the [Glasgow] Sunday Herald:
Creation according to the Christian faith is a supernatural act of God, so it will not be repeated and we can’t test creation in the lab. Evolution needs to take place over millions of years and we cannot test that either. My view on this is we should mention everything – we should examine all the evidence and all the facts and have an open and civilised discussion about all of this without excluding one or the other.
In response, I cannot improve on the words of my friend Roger Downie, Professor of Zoological Education in a letter he sent to the Sunday Herald (published 16 June):
Your quotation from Dr Nagy Iskander illustrates why creationists should not be let near science classes. He said ‘Evolution needs to take place over millions of years and we cannot test that…’ On the contrary, evolution through Darwin and Wallace’s process of natural selection is happening all the time, sometimes quite quickly. Since Dr Iskander is said to be a surgeon, I would hope that he is fully aware of the evolution of the antibiotic resistance that has made hospital procedures so risky. Science advances through the testing of hypotheses and the accumulation of evidence. Both medicine and biology have greatly benefited from this process. I presume Dr Iskander’s medical practice is based on such advances, rather than the superstitions of previous times.
It is perhaps unkind to describe pre-scientific views as “superstitions” when considered in the context of their time. But to put such views forward today in the name of religion, as serious alternatives to scientific knowledge, brings religion itself into disrepute.
Who appointed Dr. Iskander to his position with the school? Were they aware of his Young Earth creationist views? What do the school’s own teachers, including both the science teachers and those who teach about religion, think of his role, and does he have any influence over their teaching? How often does he address the school, and on what subjects? Are parents notified of his views and influence? Do he and his fellow members of the Chaplaincy Panel receive any payments or reimbursements from the school? And does the school obtain any materials from a company called Christian Schools Scotland, of which he is a director?
I don’t know the answer to any of these questions, but intend to find out by addressing a Freedom of Information request of the school. I will let you know what they say.
PS: Today’s small country viewing here is the Cayman Islands, population 55,000.
Illustration: Humans living peacefully before the Fall with vegetarian tyrannosaurs. Public domain photo of actual exhibit, through http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Creation_Museum_10.png
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.
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?