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The evolution of creationism; Kitzmiller 10 years on

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.


Phylogenetic relationships among creationism bills , courtesy Nick Matzke. AFA Academic freedom Act, SEA Science Education Act, further identification by year, State, and bill number

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.[1]

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.

Darwin’s Doubt in review; Meyer, Matzke, and some of their critics

paul_book_-1Yesterday I wrote about Casey Luskin’s critique of Nick Matzke’s review of Meyer’s Darwin’s Doubt, but not everyone knows (why should they?) who Luskin is, or who said what in which way about whom. So I’ve written this brief survey of the dramatis personae, and review of reviews of reviews.

Luskin is Program Officer of the DI’s Center for Science and Culture, of which Meyer is director, Berlinksi a Senior Fellow, and Kenyon a Fellow. According to his bio on the CSC website, he ‘is co-founder of the Intelligent Design and Evolution Awareness (IDEA) Center, a non-profit helping students to investigate evolution by starting “IDEA Clubs” on college and high school campuses across the country.’ His 5 year stint with Scripps Institute of Oceanography produced one publication; he was one of several junior authors on a study of paleaomagnetic dating of sediments, which has attracted 17 citations. So, moderately useful routine work. No life science qualifications or experience.

David Berlinski is a Senior Fellow of the CSC, mathematician and philosopher, and has written serious works in his own area, including a 1972 article on the philosophy of molecular biology. As the review I cited shows, he writes powerfully and amusingly, even when (as here) he is attacking a fictional straw man.

Dean Kenyon is a CSC Fellow. He was at one time a respected biologist, but in the 1970s was converted by Morris’s Genesis Flood to Young Earth Creationism. He was co-author of Of Pandas and People.

Nick Matzke is just finishing the formalities of his PhD at Berkeley,and will be moving to a postdoc at NIMBioS at U. Tennessee Knoxville in September. Web of Knowledge lists him as author of 19 publications, with a total of 330 literature citations to date.

[Added (h/t Christine Janis): an even more thourough and, therefore, destructive review, by Aaron P. Baldwin, is here]

Stephen Meyer, Director of the CSC and Senior Fellow of the Discovery Institute, holds a joint degree in physics and earth science from Whitworth, a private Christian liberal arts university, and a PhD in the philosophy of science from Cambridge, and has taught at  Palm Beach Atlantic, a faith-based liberal arts college. He is now director of the Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture, and author or co-author of a number of works of fiction, including Explore Evolution, a pseudotextbook that shows that the creationists have discovered Batesian mimicry, other works of fiction including Signature in the Cell, and, of course, Darwin’s Doubt. Which is where we came in.

World Scientific publishing creationist “symposium” proceedings

[This post got over 50 hits from Singapore, home of WSPC, on its first working day up]

Librarians, do not buy this book. University-based readers, please pass on these concerns to your librarian. Why World Scientific expects anyone to pay $139 for the volume is beyond me, unless they regard university libraries as a captive audience for whatever misrepresents itself as significant new material. Readers with any working relationship with World Scientific, if you agree with me please share your concerns with your contacts there.

The misrepresentation starts with the volume’s self-description: Proceedings of the Symposium Cornell University, USA, 31 May – 3 June 2011

So was this event organized or sponsored by CornellUniversity? No. They just hired a hall. Was it a symposium? Only if you can dignify with that name a gathering of the faithful, called together by invitation and without prior publicity.

It gets worse.

The “new perspectives” turn out to be nothing more than a regurgitation of long-refuted arguments from well-known creationists. (All chapters, by the way, are open access here, so any reader with the patience can go to the book, and refute what I am saying here chapter and verse.)

Nick Matzke originally reviewed the volume here on pandasthumb. At that stage, it was scheduled for publication by Springer, who reconsidered in remarkably short order; for the subsequent history, and reaction from the Discovery Institute, see here. We do not know how it came about that the volume is now scheduled for publication next month by World Scientific, but this, together with another extraordinary pending publication, gives great cause for anxiety about the health of a once-respected publishing house.

[Disclosure; World Scientific were the publishers for my own first non-technical book, From Stars to Stalagmites]

There is little that I can add to Matzke’s review. The book is based on the crucial refusal by the Intelligent Design movement to understand the process by which random change (generating novelty) followed by selection (filtering for function) gives rise to significant new information. This despite the fact that this process can be seen at every level from the creation within a computer of genetic algorithms, to the path-optimising activities of an ant hill. The contributors’ names are generally all too familiar; many readers of this piece will not need to be reminded, for example, what Dembski does for a living. However, I did spot one name that may be less familiar outside the UK; Andy McIntosh, of the creationist group Truth in Science, well known to the British Centre for Science Education for its attempts to sabotage the teaching of evolution in schools, and famous to his friends for his eccentric interpretation of the Second Law of Thermodynamics.

Presumably, World Scientific were aware of the concerns surrounding this volume. Nonetheless, they decided to publish. I can think of only three possible explanations:

1)      An idealistic resolve to give due publicity to a particular point of view, however unfashionable. I think we can dismiss this, since World Scientific has not yet taken to publishing books about how aliens landed at Roswell, or the faking of the moon landings. Moreover, the Discovery Institute has adequate publication channels of its own.

2)      Creationist infiltration. I would like to dismiss this as an unfounded conspiracy theory, were it not for the existence of another upcoming publication, about which I have already expressed my concerns on this blog. (I am currently in correspondence with World Scientific about that publication, and will be giving an updated report later this week.)

3)      Utter incompetence. I would include in this category any cynical commercial decision to go ahead with full knowledge of the demerits of the work, since the damage to World Scientific’s reputation must surely outweigh the few thousands that would accrue from its publication.

Whatever the detailed explanation, I can only appeal to World Scientific, even at this late stage, to think again.

The Creationist Obsession with Darwin; from Louisiana to Discovery Institute to Glasgow

From Louisiana through the Discovery Institute to Glasgow, examples of the creationist obsession with Darwin (and inability to quote him correctly) continue to accumulate.

You may have heard of the Louisiana Science Education Act (how’s that for protective colouring?), which allows creationism to be taught in the State’s publicly funded schools in the name of “academic freedom.” The law was apparently suggested to State Senator Ben Nevers by the Lousiana Family Forum, whose upcoming Leadership Academy, to be addressed by Governor Bobby Jindal, promises to “teach you how to defend Conservative principles within policy!” (Exclamation mark in original. I set the last two links at “No-Follow”)

And now here’s the bit that’s relevant to my theme, courtesy Zack Kopplin. To quote Sen. Nevers, the Louisiana Family Forum “believe that scientific data related to creationism should be discussed when dealing with Darwin’s theory.” So there are scientific data relevant to creationism (what, I wonder?), but a century and a half of evolutionary science are merely “Darwin’s theory”. As in, the Earth goes round the Sun in an elliptical orbit is “Kepler’s theory”, and stuff is made out of atoms is “Dalton’s theory”.

Stephen Meyers’ Darwin’s Doubt uses similar tactics, from the title on in. The contents give us three references to Darwin in its 23 chapter and section headings; “Darwin’s Nemesis”, “After Darwin, What?”, and “The Post-Darwinian World and Self-Organisation”. Darwin’s name also occurs seven times on the book’s front flap. This (free view on Amazon) presents one short argument, to introduce one very long book, based on compressing the Ediacaran and Cambrian radiations, ignoring everything we know about the events leading up to them (see Robert Hazen’s Story of Earth for a good brief overview), and comparing the resulting mystification with the problem of the origin of life. The index gives ten subheadings and 21 page references for Darwin, and sixteen subheadings and 43 page references to “Darwinian evolutionary theory”. These include six to “Agassiz’ challenge”; that’s Louis Agassiz, who was generously acknowledged by Darwin for his discovery of the Ice Ages, and died 1873. And I nearly forgot: twentysix subheadings and 38 page references for “neo-Darwinism”.  For comparison, Carl Zimmer and Douglas J. Emlen’s Evolution; Making Sense of Life (one of the few textbooks I have come across that is actually a pleasure to read) has 16 subheadings and 33 page references to Darwin. And for “Darwin’s theory”, “Darwinian theory”, or “neo-Darwinism”? None at all. Indeed, I cannot recall when I last came across those expressions, other than from a historian or a creationist.

And of course Glasgow’s own Centre for Intelligent Design, a Discovery Institute echo chamber, has done its poor best to support Stephen Meyer. How? By mangling Darwin to totally shift his emphasis, and refocus it on Meyer’s chosen pseudoproblem. You will find the full gory details here on my friend Robert Saunders’ blog, Wonderful Life. There is also more about Meyer’s book on the BCSE website; I discussed it here, but think Nick Matzke’s dismemberment may be impossible to improve on. Disclosure: I lectured about “Dalton’s theory”, though I didn’t call it that, to Alastair Noble, now the Centre’s Director, many years ago. I like to think my teaching has improved since then. But at least I wasn’t responsible for teaching him about biology, or geology, or complex systems theory, or elementary logic, so perhaps I shouldn’t blame myself too much for what he’s been up to since.

Six Day Creationist publicly endorses Stephen Meyer’s Darwin’s Doubt

The reasoning behind Stephen Meyer’s latest offering will not stand up to examination. However, the Discovery Institute have proudly announced that it has been endorsed by one of Britain’s leading scientists. It turns out, however, that the leading scientist is actually a doctor, not an evolutionary biologist, that he has been deeply involved with the Discovery Institute for many years, and that he required no convincing of the book’s central claim that biological information is the work of a designer. Nor, perhaps, is he the right person to evaluate Meyer’s critique of evolutionary science, because he never accepted evolutionary science in the first place. He believes that the Bible is the inerrant word of God, that Genesis I through XI is a historically accurate account, and that biological information actually originated on Days Three through Six of Creation, some 6000 years ago, at God’s say-so.

Darwin’s Doubt has been billed by the Discovery Institute as a game changer, but it is not clear what game is supposed to have been changed. Certainly not the game as played by the Discovery Institute, which continues to rely on various publicity stunts, and on its readers’ (and perhaps its writers’) ignorance of the underlying science.

Meyer’s argument rests on two pillars; that there was a sudden unexplained explosion of multiplicity of body plans around 500 million years ago (the “Cambrian explosion”), and that this is just a special case of a more general phenomenon, namely that evolution cannot generate information as complex as that found within living things.

It would be chutzpah on my part to claim any originality in my refutation of these claims, when the job has been done so expertly in a pandasthumb posting by Nick Matzke, written as he finishes graduate school. To summarise Matzke’s argument, the “explosion” was not a sudden event at all, but part of a complex sequence, and so far from the simultaneous de novo appearance of numerous unrelated body types, we have detailed knowledge of the family connections between them. As for the argument that evolution cannot generate new complexities, it is simply wrong. We see it happening all the time. Matzke actually knows something about this sort of thing, having written important papers on the origins of the bacterial flagellum and, more recently, the timing of the endosymbiotic events that gave rise to mitochondria.

What I want to talk about here is the latest publicity stunt. I have already written about the earlier pre-launch stunt of passing the hat round the Discovery Institute’s supporters in order to buy media coverage. What the DI have now done is to trumpet the endorsement of the book by Prof Norman Nevin, a leading biological scientist, as an example of a leading scientist who has been swayed by the book’s arguments.

There are just a few things wrong with this claim. Prof Nevin is not an evolutionary scientist at all. He is a medical geneticist, and if I wanted advice on whether it would be wise for me to marry my cousin, he would certainly be the right person to go to. However, that does not magically give him any deeper insight than anyone else into the origins of the deleterious genes that might manifest themselves in our offspring. (As we shall see later, he does claim such an insight, but not one that many readers here would accept.) He is not an independent judge of the Discovery Institute’s activities, since he is Chairman of Glasgow’s own Centre for Intelligent Design (C4ID), which derives materials, arguments, and prominent speakers from the Discovery Institute, and whose very foundation was inspired by a visit to the UK of Phillip Johnson, the DI’s original creator. Finally, we can be completely confident that Prof Nevin’s acceptance of Intelligent Design is not the result of what Stephen Meyer has just written. His chairmanship of the Centre, which exists precisely to promote it, goes back to its foundation in 2010, and his acceptance of Intelligent Design derives, not from scientific argument, but from parochial religious obscurantism.

I am now going to resort to an ad hominem argument. Some people will say this is very wrong of me, and indeed I have been barred from posting comments on the C4ID FaceBook page for doing it. However, I will use the playground excuse of “they started it”. It is the Discovery Institute that invoked Prof Nevin’s authority in the first place, and so it is fair play to subject that authority to scrutiny.

Prof Nevin has told us what he thinks, at considerable length, in a series of sermons given at Bethany Church, Belfast. You will find his views on Adam and Eve here and here, and on the historical reality of Noah’s flood here. Or, if you’re not willing to sit and suffer for two hours, you can find a few representative quotations on the British Centre for Science Education website:

I believe the first eleven chapters of Genesis as the word of god and as historical fact.

Genesis is the foundation of God’s word and I believe that it is crucial to our understanding of the rest of scripture.

Indeed the eleven chapters, the first eleven chapter of the Book of Genesis, are referred to in the New Testament. So the Book of Genesis is foundational to the word of God.

So the Lord Jesus Christ looked upon Adam and Eve, he looked upon Abel and Cain as historical figures… and when he discusses the Flood and Noah… the Lord Jesus Christ looked upon these early chapters as historical fact.

And what’s good enough for the Lord Jesus Christ is good enough for Norman Nevin. So there!

I must admit that here Prof Nevin has the advantage of me. I do not claim to know exactly what was said in Judaea almost 2000 years ago. And even if I did, I wouldn’t know whether references to older texts implied that they were to be understood literally or allegorically, a distinction already well-developed in the rabbinical tradition of the time.

And what about those genetic defects, on which Prof Nevin really is an expert, which irrevocably condemn a child to the slow choking death of cystic fibrosis, or an adult to the mental degeneration of Huntingdon’s? How could it possibly be their fault? Again, Prof Levin has the answer. The world, as created, was “very good”, as Genesis 1:31 assures us. So all these nasty things were not in the world as created, and must be the result of something that happened later. Of course, the Fall! The choking child, the confused and twitching adult, deserve everything that is happening to them because of something their remote ancestors did 6000 years ago. So that dreadful Something really must have happened, as a matter of historical fact, and everything those nasty evolutionists and Darwinians are telling you is wrong.

If you can believe that, no wonder you can believe that Stephen Meyer’s ramblings are superb science.

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