Blog Archives

The Scopes “Monkey trial”, Part 2: Evidence, Confrontation, Resolution, Consequences

Darrow: Did you ever discover where Cain got his wife?

Bryan: No, sir; I leave the agnostics to hunt for her.

Both sides, I will argue, were long-term loses in this exchange. But why were such matters being discussed in Tennessee court of law in the first place?

Part 1: the story so far: An extraordinary case indeed, where a school teacher, with the encouragement of his own superintendent, volunteers to go on trial in the State court for the crime of teaching from the State’s approved textbook, and where that same superintendent will be the first witness called against him. And where a mere misdemeanour case, with a maximum penalty of $500, could attract the participation of William Jennings Bryan, former US Secretary of State, and Clarence Darrow, America’s most famous trial lawyer and an agnostic.

BillySundayPreaching

Billy Sunday preaching

In the run-up to the case, we even have the involvement of Billy Sunday, possibly the greatest of all pre-television evangelists, whose 18 day crusade in Memphis, Tennessee, was attended by some 200,000 people. Billy Sunday told his audiences that Darwin was an infidel: “To hell with the Modernists. Education today is chained to the devil’s throne. Teach evolution? Teaching about pre-historic man? No such thing as prehistoric man.” (Billy Sunday appealed to a broad public. He hosted a “Negro Night”, which 15,000 attended. There was also a Klan Night.)

John_t_scopesSmithsonianPublicDomain

John Scopes in 1925

The facts were not in dispute. Scopes had of course taught evolution, although the law said he shouldn’t. So it was really the law itself that was on trial. The ACLU was hoping to prove it unconstitutional because unreasonable, ambiguous, and an affront to freedom of conscience. Unreasonable because it opposed established science. Ambiguous because the Bible, to which it referred, was itself open to numerous interpretations. And an affront to freedom of conscience, because it imposed a preference for one religion (Christianity), and indeed one school of thought (the Fundamentalist) within that religion. These arguments were, according to the defence, fatal flaws in the prosecution indictment, which should therefore be quashed. The judge, however, was determined not to issue a ruling of that nature, and ordered the case to proceed. Now read on.

The defence case built on the above arguments. According to their interpretation of the statute, in order to be guilty Scopes would have had to do two separate things; (a) teach that humans were descended from lower animals, and (b) by that teaching, contradict the Bible. But the exact text of the Bible, how it should be understood, and even which books should be included in it were matters of controversy. The Bible was not a science textbook, and

[T]here is no more justification for impos­ing the conflicting views of the Bible on courses of biology than there would be for imposing the views of biologists on courses of com­parative religion. We maintain that science and religion embrace two separate and distinct fields of thought and learning.

Accepting the Bible need not (and for the many Christians who accepted evolution did not) imply accepting the literal truth of the Genesis account. Bryan himself had praised Jefferson’s doctrine that governments had no business regulating religion, but that was exactly what the Tennessee Legislature had done by passing this law. In addition, since Scopes was accused of teaching evolution, it was necessary to establish what evolution science consisted of. The prosecution, more than once, had said that according to evolution man [1] was descended from monkeys. Not so; man and monkey shared a common ancestor, some time in the distant past. The human embryo, at various stages, had gill slits, then a tail, then hair. Evolution played a central role, not only in pure science, but in the applied sciences of medicine and agriculture. All this, and much more, the defence hoped to establish by calling expert witnesses.

None of this was to the liking of the prosecution, who attempted to interrupt even this bare outline, but the judge ruled that he needed to hear what the defence case would be, before deciding whether or not to exclude it. His eventual decision was that while the expert evidence was in his own view inadmissible, and should not be presented to the jury, it should nonetheless be entered into the trial record, for the benefit of the superior courts.

It did not take long for the prosecution to establish its facts. Scopes had reviewed Hunter’s Civic Biology, and in the course of doing so had taught the offending doctrine.

Most (not all) of the defence evidence was submitted in writing, since the judge allowed only part of it to be read out in court, and even that in the absence of the jury. However, I will not differentiate here between spoken and written evidence, and can only give a few samples of the extensive material. Distinguished churchmen testified that one could be flexible in one’s view of the Bible, to the point of accepting evolution, and still be a good Christian. A scholarly Rabbi testified that the King James translation of Genesis was incorrect. In order to counteract rumours to the contrary, former President Woodrow Wilson wrote that

Of course, like every other man of intelligence and education, I do believe in organic evolution. It surprises me that at this late date such questions should be raised.

William Bateson, the evolutionary biologist who coined the term “genetics”, had said at a Toronto conference that

I have put before you very frank­ly the considerations which have made us agnostic as to the actual mode and processes of evolution. When such confessions  are made the enemies of science see their chance. If we cannot declare here and now how species arose, they will oblig­ingly offer us the solutions with which obscurantism is satisfied.

As had indeed happened (see Bryan’s planned closing speech, below), prompting Bateson to submit a letter stating that

We do know that the plants and animals, in­cluding most certainly man, have been evolved from other and very different forms of life. As to the nature of this process of evolution, we have many conjectures, but little positive knowledge. The campaign against the teach­ing of evolution is a terrible example of the way in which truth can be perverted by the ignorant.

One other submission, by Professor Horatio Hackett Newman of Chicago, is noteworthy as a summary of the evidence for evolution that can still serve as a model today. As Prof Newman said, we can observe evolution in the present, which entitles us to invoke it as explanation, over much longer periods of time, in the past. The principle of evolution is “the one great law of life”, and stands in the first rank among natural laws because of the range of observational tests it has undergone, in every conceivable way, for more than half a century (remember that these words were written in 1925; we would now say more than a century and a half). As Newman put it,

The evidences of evolution that we shall investigate are contained with­in the following fields of biology:

First – Comparative anatomy or morphology, the science of structure. Second – Taxonomy, the science of classification. Third – Serology the science of blood tests. Fourth – Embryology the science of development. Fifth – Paleontology, the science of extinct life. Sixth – Geographic distribution, the study of the horizontal distribution of closely similar species upon the earth’s surface.  Seventh – Genetics, the analytlc and experimental study of evolutionary processes going on today.

The only alteration a present-day exponent of evolution would make, is to replace serology (a crude estimate of degree of tissue similarity based on immune responses) with the enormously more refined methods of protein and DNA sequencing. The coming together of this new knowledge, undreamt of at the time of the trial, with the other lines of evidence listed, is as breathtaking as the coming together of lines of masonry in the ceiling of a Gothic cathedral.

TetrapodLimb

Tetrapod forelimbs display homology. Related parts coloured for clarity. Note the arm-like structure, in particular, of the whale’s flipper

The anatomical evidence included the homologous structures of the human arm, the whale’s flipper, the wing of a bird and, less obviously until detailed examination is undertaken, the front leg of a horse. Special creation, on the other hand, “implies a slavish adherence to a preconceived ideal plan together with capricious departures from the plan in various instances.”

Comparative anatomy clearly enables us to distinguish between homologies related to common descent, and the merely analogous independent evolution of similar but unrelated organs. Further anatomical evidence comes from vestigial organs, including transient vestigial organs such as the hind limb buds in a whale embryo. Taxonomy gives us nested classifications; dogs as varieties of the wolf species within the canid genus within the order of Carnivora within mammals within vertebrates within chordates within the Animal kingdom. Taxonomy also places man among the primates, another order within the class of mammals. Man is a species with at least four subspecies (present-day science would blur the boundaries, but that does not affect the argument), evidence of a long evolutionary history incompatible with biblical chronology.

Serology in Newman’s time depended on inducing an immune response in rabbits to one particular species, which would then show a similar immune response to a second, related species, and the greater the biochemical similarity between the species, the stronger that response would be. Remarkably, Newman correctly used this evidence to place whales as most closely related to hoofed animals, and specifically to swine, a conclusion that was not generally accepted until the 1990s.

Pregnancy-week-6-webbed-hands_4x3

Human embryo at 6 weeks. Note umbilical cord, yolk sac (a vestigial organ), gill arches, and tail

Embryology recapitulates common ancestry (for an outstanding discussion of this, see Alice Roberts’ prize-winning The Incredible Unlikeliness of Being). Thus the human embryo at an early stage has a two-chamber heart, like a fish, and gill slits, and diverges from the anthropoid apes only in the final stages of development. Palaeontology is closely related to geology, with “a general progression toward more highly specialized forms as one proceeds from lower to higher strata.” The fossil record is patchy (I do not think one would say this now; see for example Prothero’s What the Fossils Say and why it Matters). While reasonably complete for the horse it is [was] patchy for humans, but progress is being made. (Newman, interestingly, explicitly reserves judgement on Piltdown Man. Progress was indeed being made, but the Taung Child, mentioned in Part 1, and referred to in other written evidence, seems to have come just too late for Newman’s deposition.)

Newman’s argument from geographical distribution comes straight out of Darwin, but rings as true today as when it was first minted.[2] Continental islands such as the Galapagos are inhabited by species generally similar to those of the adjacent mainland, whereas those of oceanic islands, such as Hawaii, had until human intervention very different flora and fauna, related to such species as might, from time to time, survive a long ocean journey.

Genetics, in brief, shows evolution in action in the present day. And all these signs of evidence come together in supporting the great evolutionary explanation of resemblance as the result of relationship.

For balance, I should at this point summarise the arguments in the speech that Bryan had planned to make at the end of the trial (see below for how this plan was frustrated), and no doubt formed the basis of the speeches that he did give in the days immediately following. It will not improve our opinion of Bryan’s logic, but will help explain his motivation. And if we are not interested in this, we will not be able to reach out to those we most need to persuade.

The law was not a restriction on Scopes’s freedom as an individual, but merely on his actions as a state employee. Christianity welcomes science, but nothing can be scientific unless it is true, and whatever is true must agree with the Bible. Evolution was a mere hypothesis (here he misquoted Bateson, as Bateson had foreseen; see above). No one had demonstrated the transformation of one species into another, and despite the circumstantial evidence in favour of evolution, this was a fatal flaw. Bryan then brought five specific indictments against evolution. First, it disputes the truth of the Bible. Secondly, it leads, as the horrible example of Charles Darwin himself shows, by way of non-literal reading of the Bible towards agnosticism if not atheism, and the denial of revelation and of eternal life. Half of all academic scientists are atheists, and many students lose their faith while at university. Thirdly, evolution diverts attention from pressing problems of great importance to trivial speculation, and deadens the spiritual life of its students:

Christians desire that their children shall be taught all the sciences, but they do not want them to lose sight of the Rock of Ages while they study the age of rocks; neither do they desire them to become so absorbed in meas­uring the distance between the stars that they will forget Him who holds the stars in His Hand.

Fourthly, evolution deadens the urge for reform, and denies the possibility of individual redemption. “Evolution makes a mockery of the Lord’s Prayer!” Bryan’s fifth indictment is that evolution is based on the survival of the fittest, militates against compassion, and justifies eugenics and the politics of force. It devalues human life, as had been so apparent in the Great War, and is even associated (Bryan never explained the association) with sexual permissiveness. Science had made war more terrible than ever, so that our need for the moral guidance that Christianity offers was greater than ever. But evolution degrades the Saviour’s name,

For, carried to its logical conclusion, it robs Christ of the story of a virgin birth, of the majesty of His deity and mission and of the triumph of His resurrection. It also disputes the doctrine of the atonement.… The case has assumed the proportions of a battle-royal between unbelief that attempts to speak through so-called science and the defenders of the Christian faith, speaking through the legislators of Tennessee. It is again a choice between God and Baal.

Bryan is not attacking a straw man. In his speech he quotes from The New Decalogue of Science, by Alfred Wiggam, typical of the highly influential eugenicist literature of the time, which warns that compassionate social policies would lead to a weakening of the race, and states eugenics as the highest duty of government (for samples of his text see here and here). Wiggam himself was actively campaigning into the 1940s. More than 30 US States passed compulsory sterilisation laws.  Madison Grant’s The Passing of the Great Race, which mingles evolution, racism, and eugenics, was influential in the passage of the 1924 US Immigration Act, just one year before Bryan drafted this speech. This book described the Nordic race as the most advanced, and helped justify a policy that excluded Jews and other Eastern European immigrants.

Bryan is also appealing to religion as the basis for morality. As I have argued elsewhere, the fact that such reasoning is logically unsound does not reduce its psychological appeal, and as Kenan Malik argues in his The Quest for a Moral Compass, we have been struggling with this tension, with doubtful success, for over 2000 years. Finally, Bryan is searching for the comfort of certainty in an uncertain world, and like other creationists he points to the uncertain and provisional nature of scientific knowledge, as if that were a crucial weakness rather than, paradoxically, its greatest strength.

Many of the detailed points raised by Bryan are still being raised today. The claim that evolution is only a theory, that it speculates when jumping over missing links, that plant breeders had only produced varieties within species (“microevolution”), that unnamed great scientists are divided about evolution, that scientific disputes about mechanisms imply doubt about the basic fact of evolution, that if you teach children they are animals they will behave like animals, that evolutionists are intolerant when they demand that their views should be the only one taught, and that schools should teach according to the wishes of the taxpayers who fund them.

Clarence Darrow, a famous Chicago lawyer, and William Jennings Bryan, defender of Fundamentalism, have a friendly chat in a courtroom during the Scopes evolution trial. Darrow defended John T. Scopes, a biology teacher, who decided to test the new Tenessee law banning the teaching of evolution. Bryan took the stand for the prosecution as a bible expert. The trial in 1925 ended in conviction of Scopes. ca. 1925 Dayton, Tennessee, USA

Darrow and William Jennings Bryan having a friendly chat in a courtroom during the trial

The enduring interest in the Scopes trial comes mainly from the final afternoon of evidence, when Darrow called Bryan to the witness stand (actually, by this stage, a wooden chair on the courthouse lawn) to testify regarding the contents of the Bible. This testimony also would be  entered into the trial record, but heard in the absence of the jury, who missed one of the most dramatic episodes in legal history. One hardly knows where to begin when discussing this manoeuvre. The strangest thing of all is that Bryan rose to the bait. Judge Raulston made it very clear that he was under no obligation to testify. The cross-examination had nothing directly to do with the point at issue; no possible relevance to what Scopes may or may not have taught in the classroom, and Darrow’s questioning made no reference to the subject under discussion, namely human evolution. Bryan was placing himself at Darrow’s mercy, where Darrow, as one of the world’s best cross-examining lawyers, had total control over what questions would be raised. Indeed, Bryan had on an earlier occasion refused such an asymmetric contest, saying that he would answer Darrow’s questions only if Darrow would agree, turn by turn, to answer his. Bryan did ask whether he would be allowed to call Darrow to the witness stand, but any such idea must have been forgotten long before the afternoon was over.

After some preliminary generalities, Darrow asked whether Bryan believed that Jonah had been swallowed by a whale. A big fish, rather than a whale, otherwise yes. Then a revealing statement of Bryan’s attitude to miracles:

Let me add: One miracle is just as easy to believe as another. When you get beyond what man can do, you get within the realm of miracles; and it is just as easy to believe the miracle of Jonah as any other miracle in the Bible.

Darrow moved on to some deeply searching questions about the biblical passage that describes how Joshua commanded the Sun to stand still, until the Israelite victory was complete. How could this be, when we know that it is not the Sun but the Earth that moves? With great reluctance, Bryan admitted that it must have been the Earth that stood still, and that the Bible was “using language at that time that the people understood.” Yet Bryan denied that this was his interpretation of the passage; to admit that the Bible could be open to different interpretations would undermine the entire Fundamentalist case.

He conceded slowly, under questioning, that actually it must have been the Earth that stood still. At this point, Attorney-General Stewart, the lead prosecutor, interrupted to object that this cross-examination had nothing to do with the trial. Bryan, however, insisted on ploughing on, and did not seem to have even anticipated Darrow’s rather obvious follow-up question:

Q– Now, Mr. Bryan, have you ever pondered what would have happened to the earth if it had stood still?
A–No.
Q–You have not?
A– No; the God I believe in could have taken care of that, Mr. Darrow.
Q– I see. Have you ever pondered what would naturally happen to the earth if it stood still suddenly?
A– No.
Q–Don’t you know it would have been converted into molten mass of matter?

A–I would want to hear expert testimony on that.
Q–You have never investigated that subject?
A–I don’t think I have ever had the question asked.
Q–Or ever thought of it?
A–I have been too busy on things that I thought were of more importance than that.

For what it’s worth, Darrow was mistaken here. The kinetic energy of the Earth’s rotation would be enough to heat it up somewhere between 10 and 20 degrees Celsius, not to melt it. However, the inertia of the oceans would have generated continent-size tsunamis, and making the Earth stand still would have required a temporary suspension of the most basic laws of physics. This is not a problem for Bryan, who thinks that God’s capacity for miracles is boundless.

It gets worse. When asked whether he accepts the date for the Flood [sic] of 4004 BC, Bryan waffles and does not seem to know what that date was based on, although all that is involved is simple arithmetic based on the biblical genealogies. Regarding the age of the Earth, he initially refuses to say whether he accepts Bishop Ussher’s date or not, although he was in fact perfectly ready (as becomes clear later in the cross questioning) to treat each biblical “day” as an age. Here Bryan is fighting on two fronts. He did not want to admit that it is legitimate to impose an interpretation of the Bible, because that would concede too much to the Modernists. On the other hand, he needed to play down the deep division between his own Old Earth creationism, and that of extreme Adventist literalism. He claimed widespread scientific support for his views, but when pressed could only name one; George McCready Price, whom he described as a Professor of Geology at Lodi College near Lincoln, Nebraska. In fact, Price had left Lodi (which was just a boarding school in California) in 1915, was at the time teaching at a Seventh Day Adventist College in England. and had almost no formal training in geology. Pricewas a fierce Young earth creationist, who argued that fossils could not be dated, and that all the sedimentary rocks were deposited during Noah’s Flood.

While Bryan was stumbling over the day-age issue, the judge himself intervened, questioning the relevance of the testimony, but Bryan insisted on continuing, not, as he said, for the benefit of the appellate court, but to show his willingness to defend the Bible against detractors.

Bryan had already affirmed his belief in a literal tower of Babel, at which peoples had first been divided by language, and his lack of interest in the evidence that distinct civilisations with different languages had existed before the time specified in Genesis for this division. When questioned, he also affirmed his belief in a literal Adam and Eve, and in Eve having been made out of Adam’s rib. When asked if he knew where Cain got his wife, he replied “No, sir; I leave the agnostics to hunt for her.” Somewhat belatedly, he defended on purely textual grounds his day-age interpretation of Genesis 1, admitted to believing in a literal serpent that crawls upon its belly as punishment for its role in the Fall, and interrupted shrewd questioning about the origin of the rainbow to say that Darrow was trying to use the court to slur the Bible. With the words “I am exempting you on your fool ideas that no intelligent Christian on Earth believes”, Darrow concluded his cross questioning, and the court adjourned.

I am amazed by how poorly both sides conducted themselves here. Bryan comes over as ill-prepared for questions that any defender of the biblical text should have been well aware of, while Darrow has scored a pyrrhic victory, by ridiculing his opponent and all his supporters. There is nothing unbiblical or subversive in interpreting the story of Jonah as a parable. One can imagine atmospheric lensing that would make the observed Sun, as source of light, stay in place in the heavens (incredible perhaps, but less incredible than Bryan’s alternatives). And had he really not thought about where Cain’s wife came from? (We are told that Adam and Eve had other children, and there was as yet no law against incest.) Bryan would also have done well to explain at the first opportunity, rather than having it wormed out of him, the day-age interpretation of Genesis. He made a few wisecracks that went down well with his own supporters in the crowd but, surprisingly for an experienced politician, he seems to have been quite oblivious of how his performance would appear to the 200 newsmen present at the trial, and refused repeatedly opportunities to bring his ordeal to an end, something that only happened when, eventually, even Darrow had had enough.

Darrow, a highly experienced trial lawyer, I find even more puzzling. Ridicule is a powerful weapon, but not if one wants to win over those who will identify with its victim. Repeatedly, Darrow insults the crowd; “bleachers”, “down here in the hills”, “your fool religion”, “where have you lived all your life? [Answer: Not near you] Nor near anybody of learning?” The only excuse I can offer is that he may have been so afraid of the spread of Fundamentalism that he was willing to play on northern prejudice in order to quarantine it in the deep South.

Bryan still had one powerful shot in his locker; his closing speech on behalf of the prosecution. But he would not be allowed to deliver it. When the court convened the next day, Darrow suggested, and it was agreed, that the judge instruct the jury to find Scopes guilty on the basis of the evidence offered, and then summed up for the defence by saying that he could offer them no reason to do otherwise. This, of course, made any further proceedings unnecessary. Scopes was duly found guilty, and Judge Raulston, after discussion with the jury, imposed a $100 fine, the minimum the law allowed.

The appeal was an anticlimax. The Tennessee Supreme Court ruled that, since the fine had been imposed by the judge, when by law the amount should have been decided by the jury, the penalty should be quashed, and, on the grounds that Scopes had by then left the employ of the State, directed that the case be allowed to lapse.

Bryan, an overweight diabetic, travelled hundreds of miles in the blistering summer heat, and made two major speeches, in the days following the trial. Then, on the following Sunday, he died in his sleep during an afternoon nap. Scopes, who took no pleasure in his brief celebrity status, won a scholarship to the University of Chicago and became a professional geologist. Darrow retired from full time practice shortly after the Scopes Trial, but appeared in a few further high profile cases, and died in 1938.

A whole series of cases (Epperson v Arkansas   McLean v Arkansas, Edwards v Aguillard, Kitzmiller v Dover) have by now established that under the First Amendment separation between Church and State, evolution should not be suppressed, and creationism (including such variants as Creation Science and Intelligent Design) should not be taught, in US publicly funded schools. In addition, new national standards in the US and in England (but not yet in Scotland) require the teaching of evolution to all schoolchildren. Yet increasingly US school boards and States are finding their way round this, by giving parents vouchers that can be used to pay the fees for nominally independent creationist schools.

Deplorable that they do this; even more deplorable, perhaps, that they even want to. The key here lies in the 2011Science article, “Defeating Creationism in the Courtroom, but not in the Classroom“, which found that only 28% of high school teachers gave lessons on evolution, while 13% refrained because they were themselves creationists. As for the remaining 60%, they wanted to avoid controversy with parents or with children who had been taught creationist arguments, were themselves often unsure about how to handle questions on the subject, and simply avoided teaching it.

Within creationism, Intelligent Design supplies intellectual topdressing, but is increasingly blatant in its tactical alliance with biblical creationism, and within biblical creationism, on the principle that the most uncompromising claim is the most authentic, the dominant school is now Young Earth creationism, reinforced by the Flood Geology of Whitcomb and Morris. This is itself a retreading of the Adventist views of George McCready Price, whom we have already met (see Part 1), and who seems to have been the real long-term beneficiary of the trial.

Price, a Seventh day Adventist, regarded Darwin as having been inspired by Satan. While this post was being revised, his view was echoed by fellow-Adventist Ben Carson, currently running for the Republican nomination for the 2016 US Presidential election. Carson is neither stupid nor ignorant; on the contrary, he is a distinguished neurosurgeon, former Professor at Johns Hopkins University, and led the first team of surgeons to separate twins born joined at the skull. My friend Michael Roberts’ post, which I reblogged yesterday, explores the historical origins of this Adventist creationism. I can only wonder at the power of such a faith.

1] I have not attempted to use gender-free language. Such language would not be appropriate for the time and place of this trial, where all the active participants, including attorneys, witnesses, and jury, were male.

2] Wallace, of course, made major contributions here, and the line separating Asiatic from Australasian fauna is still known as the Wallace Line.

Sources as in Part 1. Billy Sunday portrait by George Bellows, Metropolitan Magazine 1915, via Wikipedia. Scopes photo from Smithsonian (public domain). Darrow and Bryan chatting, author unknown, via Wikipedia. Forelimb homology image from Monroe W. Strickberger, Evolution, Third Edition. Human foetus from babycenter photo gallery. An earlier version of this piece appeared in 3 Quarks Daily.

Centre for Intelligent Design Launches Naked Creationist Attack on SecScot Petition

Dr Alastair Noble, educational consultant and director of the Glasgow ...

Dr Alastair Noble, Director of the Centre for Intelligent Design

Until yesterday, it may just have been possible to accept the claim by Glasgow’s Centre for Intelligent Design (C4ID) that the view it promotes differs from old-fashioned creationism. Not any more. Dr Noble, the Director, writing for C4ID, has used a whole range of traditional creationist arguments in a full-blooded attack on the Scottish Secular Society’s petition, currently before the Scottish Parliament, in which the Society requests

official guidance to bar the presentation in Scottish publicly funded schools of separate creation and of Young Earth doctrines as viable alternatives to the established science of evolution, common descent, and deep time.

Answers in Genesis has also attacked us, here and here [1], using cruder versions of the same arguments. We feel honoured.

Predictably, the C4ID submission [2] attempts to disguise the fact that “Intelligent Design” is nothing more than a blend of creationism and obfuscation. This has famously been established in court (Kitzmiller vs Dover School Board), and elsewhere. Most relevant to the present petition is the statement to this effect from the Association for Science Education, the UK-wide association of science teachers at all levels, and the UK’s largest teaching subject organisation.

“Macro-evolution … unobserved and speculative”

More interestingly, the C4ID submission illustrates precisely the disinformation that we seek to guard our children against, by itself embracing creationism. It does this by driving a wedge between “micro-evolution” and “macro-evolution,” and admitting that the former of these occurs, while describing the latter. Such dismissal of macro-evolution can have only one implication, the separate creationism to which we are objecting, and the denial of the results of almost two centuries of careful scientific observation. As the submission puts it:

Few people, including the most ardent religious believers, deny that evolution in the form of adaptation is an empirically observed phenomenon. This can be described as ‘micro-evolution’ and it is the sort of variation, in, for example, the beak sizes of finches that Darwin observed in the Galapagos Islands. However, those findings say nothing about how finches arose in the first place. The speculation that evolutionary processes can explain the origin as opposed to the distribution of finches can be referred to as ‘macro-evolution’. This is an unobserved and speculative feature of the theory of evolution. It is therefore inaccurate and confusing to refer simply to ‘evolution’ without clarifying which aspect of the theory is being dealt with.

Some minor points: C4ID mention religion; we did not. C4ID, like all creationists, cannot resist referring back to Darwin, much as some demented opponent of atomic theory might keep on referring back to Dalton. But the main point regard evolution: if macro-evolution didn’t happen, the only alternative is separate creation.

As a commentator (David Bell at FB Secular Scotland) points out, Macro and Micro evolution are the ID version of Ken Ham’s “historical science” and “observable science”.

Moraine in Rocky Mountain National Park. Ansel Adams (1941) via Wikipedia. Public domain

In a sense, of course, macro-evolution is unobserved, but only in much the sense that the Ice Ages are unobserved. Macro-evolution has not been directly observed over the 3000 or so years of recorded scientific observation because it takes more time than that, and the Ice Ages have not been directly observed by scientists because they happened too early, but in both these examples the evidence is incontrovertible.

From Gatesy et al,. Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution Volume 66, Issue 2, February 2013, Pages 479–506

Regarding the Ice Ages, we have evidence such as erratic boulders transported by glaciers, scratches on rocks, and massive moraines left behind, as far south as Lueneberg Heath in Germany and Minnesota in America. Regarding macro-evolution, we have, to choose just one well-explored example out of the enormous range available, the evolution of whales from terrestrial hoofed mammals. Here we have two completely independent lines of evidence ; a fossil record showing at least 10 well-defined intermediate forms, either on or close to the ancestral line leading to modern whales and porpoises, and molecular phylogenies (no different in principle from the DNA evidence used every day in our courts to establish family relationships) that show whales as first cousins to a hippopotamus and second cousins to a cow (for a general reader level open-access review, see here).

If the evolution of the blue whale, purely aquatic and the largest animal ever known on this planet, from a small terrestrial wader, does not count as macro-evolution, what does? If this kind of evidence does not remove macro-evolution from the domain of the “unobserved and speculative”, what would?

Australopithecus afarensis skull, through http://www.sculpturegallery.com

Or I could have chosen human evolution, where some 20 distinct hominin species have been identified, with steady progression in bipedality, cranial capacity, dentition, and all the other features that distinguish us from apes [3].

Or birds from non-avian dinosaurs, with the step-by-step evolution of feathers and then of flight. Or amphibia from lobefish. Or sheep and goats. Or dogs, bears, walrus and weasels from a common ancestral carnivore. All beautifully documented in the fossil record, and now supported by molecular phylogenies, along with numerous other examples. There is no lack of well written books explaining these things in highly accessible language [4], a major website has an entire section devoted to such transitions, and if C4ID are really ignorant of these evolutionary facts, the ignorance is self-imposed.

Having once placed C4ID in its rightful place in the evolution of delusion, their other arguments fall readily into place. We have the usual complaint that we want to put all talk of creationism off-limits, when we explicitly state that we intend no limitation on the discussion of ideas; merely on the misrepresentation of facts. We have the usual claim that an intelligence (or Intelligence) is required to generate new information, as if otherwise information were some kind of conserved entity like energy. We have the claim that all DNA has been shown to be functional – a travesty of even the most extravagant claims made in the current “junk DNA” controversy. We have the vulgar error that the forces driving evolution are random, whereas in fact organisms are sculpted by natural selection. We have the usual inversion of burden of proof, where the unexplained is deemed unexplainable, while those who seek natural explanations for what we do not yet understand are called closed minded. We have the argument that since natural selection sometimes works by elimination (and indeed it does), it can never really work by addition. We even have (was nothing learnt from the debacle at Dover?) irreducible complexity.

Since this is the high-class version of creationism, we also have the lofty argument that, in C4ID’s words,

The neo-Darwinian position that life and the universe, including conscious thought, are the result of blind and purposeless processes gives no reason to believe that our investigations and conclusions have any validity or truth. Students should be aware of this.

This is absurd, as I like many others have said before. If our investigations and conclusions had lacked validity or truth, we would simply not have survived. Indeed, there is now a flourishing if controversial subdiscipline that considers our minds, with both their strengths and weaknesses, as the products of natural selection.[5] Given this, C4ID’s claim that “Students should be aware of this,” when “this” is a doctrine residing only on the philosophical fringe, is breathtaking in its arrogance. (There are of course environments, such as creationist universities and seminaries, where survival is more likely if one’s conclusions lack validity and truth, but the cradle of mankind was not one of them.)

Finally, the C4ID submission accuses the petition, which I helped draft, of making an unwarranted prior assumption of philosophical naturalism; here the author, Doctor Noble, is echoing the ideas of his mentor, Phillip Johnson. As it happens, my one and only contribution to professional-level discussions on the philosophy of science  is to prove that in reality we neither need nor use any such assumption. Naturalistic explanations stand or fall in science, as in all human endeavours, on their merits; we use them because they work. Our reason for rejecting non-natural (supernatural? praeternatural? unnatural?) explanations is that they cut no ice. In every case studied, their predictions have turned out to be wrong, or unnecessary, or ambiguous to the point of utter uselessness, and the sorry history of Intelligent design research merely bears this out.

KenHam.JPG

Ken Ham, of Answers in Genesis

After C4ID, Answers in Genesis comes as comic relief, even if the gag lines are rather predictable. Evolution is a religion and an attack on Christianity (never mind that the spokesperson for BCSE, which supports the petition, is an Anglican priest; as far as AiG is concerned, he’s the wrong kind of Christian). Historical science is in a separate category because it deals with the past and is therefore not testable (what does AiG think geologists and palaeontologists do all day?) Evolutionary naturalism is atheism. Secularists (meaning, I imagine, everyone who does not use Genesis as a geology textbook) are in rebellion against God. Reaching these profound new conclusions the work of any one individual, butrequired the help of AiG‘s research team. And only one thing spoils the joke for me – the knowledge that People with a Mission Ministries, who promote AiG‘s materials, are made welcome in schools throughout Scotland.

Which is why the petition is needed in the first place.

I thank Maarten Boudry, Catherine Matthews, the Rev. Michael Roberts, Clare Marsh, and  Mark Edon, Mark Gordon, and my other colleagues in BCSE and SSS, for stimulating discussions on these issues .

[1] I have made these links “no-follow”, to avoid boosting the site’s ratings.

[2] Full text at  http://www.scottish.parliament.uk/S4_PublicPetitionsCommittee/General%20Documents/PE1530_A_Centre_for_Intelligent_Design_UK_10.10.14.pdf (warning: extreme boredom alert).

[3] Some would say “other apes”, since if apes are a clade – a complete set of descendants from some common ancestor – then we are part of it.

[4] For the fossil record and its tie-in with phylogeny, my personal favourite here is Don Prothero’s Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why It Matters.

[5] I refer of course to evolutionary psychology. Here my own position is that all psychology is evolutionary, since I have no other way of explaining the existence of our atavistic shortcomings.

Rebutting Creationism in Brazil

I have just found myself rebutting a Creationist engineering professor, on the Brazilian Air Force Academy’s cultural website.

“Scientific Creationism” is emerging as a problem in Latin America. As in the UK, it’s essentially a US evangelical import (recall that the Catholic Church accepts the historical fact of evolution). As creation-watchers may know, Henry Morris, widely regarded as the father of “Creation Science”, wrote its foundational work, The Genesis Flood,

File:The Genesis Flood.jpg

together with the theologian John C. Whitcomb, under the influence of the ideas of the Seventh-day Adventist, George McCready Price. So when the Brazilian Airforce Academy asked me to reply to an exposition of Creationism by Ruy Carlos de Camargo Vieira, Professor Emeritus of Electrical and Mechanical Engineering at the University of São Paulo and himself a convert to Seventh-day Adventism, I was very happy to do so. Here’s what I said:

Evolution is real science; creationism is fake philosophy

A reply to “O Evolucionismo e o Criacionismo à luz do Método Científico

Evolution is not an optional worldview but a fundamental scientific theory, and one of the most successful scientific theories of all time. Biblical creationism is not a worldview either, but a set of factually mistaken beliefs about the world and the Bible.

Prof Vieira argues that the present-day theory of evolution, and biblical creationism, are not in fact rival theories, but representations of differing untestable worldviews, and that the difference between them is philosophical rather than scientific. He is mistaken on every count. Evolution is a scientific theory, not only about the past, but about processes operating and observable in the present. It has made numerous successful predictions and passed many severe experimental tests. It explains facts that could not even have been imagined when, 150 years ago, the theory was put forward in its modern form. The creation story of Genesis can be tested against observation, and fails. It makes statements contrary to known fact, so that, however great its significance to us, we cannot regard it as an accurate historical narrative.

29+ Evidences for Macroevolution

The Scientific Case for Common Descent

Version 2.89

Prof Vieira claims that there is no scientific evidence for evolution. He is wrong. Two excellent books presenting this evidence, both available in Portuguese, are Your Inner Fish, by Neil Shubin, and Why Evolution is True by his colleague at the University of Chicago, Jerry Coyne. There is also an excellent on-line site, 29+ Evidences for Macroevolution, with hundreds of references to the primary literature, summarising the main arguments, and new findings supporting and illustrating the fact of evolution are reported every day.
 

Your Inner Fish      At the Water's Edge

Shubin’s book begins with a beautiful example of evolution as a predictive theory. Lower Devonian rocks contain no land vertebrates. Upper Devonian rocks contain plenty. Therefore evolution predicts that there should be fossil evidence for intermediate forms somewhere in the middle Devonian. The earliest known land vertebrates are amphibians, which would have required fresh water, and this and other detailed arguments suggested that rocks around 375 million years old, formed in river deltas, would be the best place to look. Prof Shubin and his colleagues mounted an expedition to a location in the Canadian Arctic where such rocks were exposed, and discovered the predicted intermediate form, a fish with a wrist, which they called Tiktaalik. Notice that if these rocks had shown a sudden transition without intermediates, or if they had been full of rabbits, dinosaurs, or fried chicken bones, this would have disproved the evolutionary account.

Coyne’s book lays out with great clarity the facts that are explained by evolution, all of them examples of the “evidências palpáveis [substantive evidence]” in support of evolution, “que possam ser submetidas ao escrutínio do Método Científico [that can undergo examination according to the Scientific Method]”, whose existence the learned Professor denies. These include (a) the way living things can be arranged in families on the basis of their anatomy, (b) copious fossil forms (of which Tiktaalik is one example) showing how different categorias biológicas  are descended from a common ancestry, (c) our knowledge of how new species arise (Prof Coyne is also an author of the more technical book Speciation), (d) the family trees deduced from DNA evidence, (e) the fact that these three independent methods – anatomical relationship, fossil record, and DNA comparison – give the same tree, or rather branching bush, of life, and (f) the examples of evolution that we see all around us. In addition (g), we can and do perform laboratory experiments that demonstrate and elucidate evolution, and (h) the whole of plant and animal breeding consists of evolutionary processes harnessed to our wishes, with artificial selection replacing natural selection.

Prof Veiera presents two kinds of reason for his claim that evolution is not science. One is the fact that it does not explain the origin of life, the Solar System, or the Universe. But this is no argument at all. Atomic theory does not explain the origin of atoms, the Solar System, or the Universe, but no one doubts that it is a scientific theory. The other one is that it does not explain the transformation of species and origin of new orders, as classified according to modern taxonomy. As we have seen, this is not true. Shubin’s book, for example, gives a very clear account of the origin of the transformation of fish to amphibians, and Carl Zimmer’s At the Water’s Edge describes the transformation of land mammals to whales. But even if it were true, a theory should not be rejected just because there are things we cannot yet explain. Unanswered questions are as essential to all kinds of science as unquestioned answers are to some kinds of religion.

The whale ancestor, Ambulocetus natans, (approximately 12 feet long, coastal habitat) , courtesy Thewissen Research Laboratory

Regarding biblical creationism, this does make some very precise and verifiable claims. It asserts, for example (Genesis 1:20 – 25), that birds and whales were created before land animals. Now we know that birds are descended from land dinosaurs, and that whales (free review article here; also Carl Zimmer’s book mentioned above) are descended from terrestrial mammals. So we must infer that if, as Prof Vieira believes, God is responsible for the content of Genesis 1, He did not intend it to be used as a biology textbook. I note in passing that many Christians, including Catholics, Episcopalians, and Methodists, have no problem with the fact of evolution, and that only extreme Evangelical groups, such as the Seventh Day Adventists to which Prof Veiera belongs, regard Genesis as a literal historical record.

Finally, does it matter? Yes, to Brazil’s past, present, and future. Regarding the past, the mineral wealth of Brazil can only be understood using genuine science, including evolution and its companion, deep-time geochemistry. For example, the banded iron-formations of the Quadrilátero Ferrífero in Minas Gerais owe their existence to the release of oxygen by photosynthesizing bacteria more than two billion years ago, and the oil and gas of the continental shelf were formed by the decay of ancient organisms in the Cretaceous. The present includes the responsibility of managing the Amazon basin, something that can only be done wisely by respecting the evolved relationships between its many species. And all of us will need real science, and a recognition of scientific reality, as humankind faces its troubling and unsettled future.

(Acknowledgements to Jerry Coyne, Neil Shubin, Douglas Theobald, Hans Thewissen, and Carl Zimmer, whose work I cite here)

No evidence for evolution, says the Reverend

The Rev David Blunt is Minister at North Uist and Grimsay Free Church of Scotland (Continuing), Bayhead, North Uist, not to be confused (Heaven forbid!) with the benighted folks at North Uist, Grimsay, and Berneray Free Church of Scotland, Carinish.

He subscribes to a catechism that states that unless God arbitrarily decides otherwise, I (he, too, come to think of it) am “foreordained to dishonour and wrath, … to the praise of the glory of his (God’s,not the Reverend’s) justice” because of the guilt of Adam’s first sin, rendering us liable to “everlasting separation from the comfortable presence of God, and most grievous torments in soul and body, without intermission, in hell-fire for ever.”

If he really believes that  that is what he believes and preaches, that is no one’s business but his own and his congregations (although I would have grave misgivings should he be preaching such sadistic doctrine to children.)

The Reverend also believes that the devil seeks to confuse us through the teaching of evolution, and  that everything was created over a period of six days, and in order to justify this belief he takes from time to time to the pages of the Hebridean News, where he tells us that

The notion that evolution is responsible for a process of development in living things, beginning with microbes and leading ultimately to men, must be rejected as there is not a single proven fact to support it.

I initially responded,

The Rev David Blunt says that “there is not a single proven fact” to support evolution. If he goes to the website http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/comdesc/ he will find, spelt out in detail, 29 separate arguments and hundreds of supporting facts that show that evolution is true. If he goes to the Biologs website, and looks up Dennis Venema, he will find a brilliant explanation of all this by a  devout evangelical.

If the Rev does not choose to inform himself about the facts,that is his business. But he denies their existence, he is bearing false witness.

The Reverend is clearly a fast reader, since within two days he had digested the 60 or so sections in talkorigins, and Dennis Venema’s excellent 28-part series. And so he was able to reply:

The sort of ‘facts’ which are essential for the theory of evolution to be true include the following: the existence of mutations representing the increase in genetic information necessary to arrive at more advanced life forms; the existence of life forms (extant or extinct) which are obviously transitional in character; the existence of billions of years of time.

Mutations … overwhelmingly detrimental… We still look in vain for specimens which are intermediate between one life form and another. The fossil record, which Darwin expected to provide examples of missing links, has yet to yield them.

Aeons of time are crucial to the theory of evolution yet it cannot be proved that the earth is billions of years old: indeed many scientific facts point to a much younger earth… [Evolution] must be able to account not simply for microbes to men but molecules to men – or even more precisely – particles to people. In other words it must be able to explain how life can arise from non-life. That is a real leap of faith!

There is no observable evidence for the theory of evolution. It is not testable over time and cannot be verified.

My response:

To pretend that biological evolution has to include an explanation of the origins of life is at best mistaken, at worst dishonest. Consider that before the 1950s, we did not know the origin of atoms. Nonetheless, atomic theory had been the central concept of chemistry since before the 1820s. Similarly, we do not know the origins of life, but evolution has been the central concept of biology since before the 1870s.

No one doubts that most mutations are harmful. A few of them do increase fitness. Harmful mutations are bred out, while fitness-enhancing mutations spread. It’s really that simple. Indeed, the whole of plant and animal breeding is one vast demonstration of evolution, albeit evolution directed by us rather than by the pressures of the natural environment. The Rev Blunt admits the occurrence of evolution under the pressure of artificial selection. How then can he claim that it is in principle impossible under natural selection, or that evolution has never been verified?

Australopithecus afarensis skull, through www.sculpturegallery.com
Museums are full of intermediate forms, if not the great-great-grandparents of living species, then at any rate their great-uncles. If the Rev cares to visit http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs12052-009-0135-2  (free article) he will find a whole series of intermediates between land mammals and present-day whales. If he visits the Smithsonian museum‘s site at http://humanorigins.si.edu/evidence/human-fossils/species, he will find out about over a dozen extinct species intermediate between apes and modern humans. If evolution is not true, why were these intermediates ever created?The age of the Earth is dated at over 4 billion years using some half-dozen different radiometric techniques. These the Rev Blunt will find explained, by an evangelical Christian, at “Radiometric Dating – A Christian Perspective“. We have known since 1928 that radioactive decay rates depend on the general laws of physics. If these had been different 4 billion years ago, the rocks wouldn’t have formed in the first place. If they had been almost 1000 fold faster in the past, as Young Earth creationists must claim, the rocks would have been melted by the heat produced.

doi.org/10.1016/j.ympev.2012.10.012

I conclude by pointing out that the fossil record clearly shows that whales are descended from land mammals. Yet Genesis states that whales were created on Day 5, and land mammals on Day 6. One of two things follows. Either Genesis is not, and was never meant to be, a science textbook. Or God has deliberately deceived us by creating a highly detailed but totally misleading fossil record.
This is a choice that each of us has to make in our own way. There are no alternatives.
I predict that the Reverend will reply, challenging me to turn a bacterium into a biochemist within the timescale of a research grant.
Update: Actually, rereading his material, I see that he did better than that, accusing me of clutching at whiskers (that’s a good line, I think I’ll use it) in my discussion of whale phylogeny, repeating the claim, long since refuted,  that data from Mt St Helen’s shows radiometric dating to be unreliable, and finally asserting that the only valid evidence is eye-witness evidence.
There is no eye-witness evidence of the Ice Ages, which helped shape the mountains of North Uist. Does the reverend therefore think they never happened?
If you see ads here, I apologise. I refuse to purchase a no-ads upgrade for my site.

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.

%d bloggers like this: