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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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The age of the Earth – how real science happens

If you want to teach about biology, or about the Bible, at Patrick Henry College for the evangelically home-schooled in Virginia, you will have to agree with the College’s view that “that God’s creative work, as described in Genesis 1:1-31, was completed in six twenty-four hour days.” Alternative views are to be presented, but should, “in the end, teach creation as both biblically true and as the best fit to observed data.”

Faculty teaching such courses might want to shield their eyes from the new Scientific American Classic, Determining the Age of the Earth, to which I wrote the introduction, for fear of having to change their minds and lose their jobs. For there they would find copies of articles, from 1857 to 1989, explaining in great detail just how, and after what exhaustive scrutiny, the scientific community was driven, much against its will, to conclude that “the best fit to observe data” requires a time of over 4.5 billion years.

Six days, of course, had long since ceased to be taken seriously as an estimate. The Scientific American account begins with Kelvin using arguments based on the then-new science of thermodynamics to challenge the geologists’ view that the earth was indefinitely old, and describes how he lowered his estimate from up to 100 million years to an upper limit of around 20 million. Meantime the geologists were developing what are sometimes called “hourglass” methods, based on observation of the Earth as it now is, and estimates of the rates of the processes that had brought it there. For instance, they  compared the total amount of salt in the oceans with the amount carried down in rivers annually. They added up the known thicknesses of sediments, and divided that by an estimated rate of deposition. This led them to estimates of around 100 million, enough (perhaps) for Darwinian evolution, but still longer than Kelvin was by the end willing to grant them.

When Rutherford’s group, followed in short order by Strutt, Arthur Holmes, and Bertram Boltwood, introduced radiometric dating, the geological community was initially sceptical. And with good reason. They were told that their careful estimates were wrong by a factor of five, then 10, and 20 or more. All this on the basis of a very poorly understood phenomenon. Remember that there was as yet no knowledge of the existence and nature of isotopes, the fact that there are three separate major decay sequences, or ways of distinguishing radiogenic from non-radiogenic lead. It was not until 1926, in fact, two decades after Rutherford’s initial work, that the method was generally accepted. And with our present knowledge, we can easily identify the flaws in the earlier reasoning, such as the inability to include the energy generated by nuclear processes, or the recycling of sediments back into the mantle. [Added edit: And, much more importantly, the role of convection in increasing the amount of heat to be disposed of; see here]

I had already written about this subject, mainly from the point of view of the conflict between Kelvin and the geologists. Nonetheless, I found it both enjoyable and instructive to retrace the thoughts of some of the scientists I had already met, and others whose names were new to me, in their own words and from the perspective of their own time. This was, for me, no mere antiquarian exercise, but an opportunity to experience for myself this wonderful story of discovery, not just from the point of view of the eventual winners, but as a journey over difficult terrain, where even concepts that we now recognize as misguided functioned, in their time, as signposts.

So what should we say about an institution of higher learning like PatrickHenryCollege? I would have preferred to say nothing at all, if it were not for the fact that it has an influence far beyond its numbers, that Professor John Lennox, whom I have discussed earlier, is speaking there next week, and that its 240-strong student body had by 2004 supplied seven out of the 100 interns in George W Bush’s White House, and support staff for 22 other politicians.


Has religion a future? My remarks to Edinburgh International Science Festival

Update: Keith and I will be discussing this with the Edinburgh Humanists, 7:30 pm, Monday 3rd June; Mercure Hotel (formerly Mount Royal Hotel), Skyline suite on 7th floor (there’s a lift), 53 Princes Street, Edinburgh EH2 2DG (East End of Princes Street, between M&S and Jenners Department Store)

I took part in the discussion on this topic, as part of the Edinburgh International Science Festival, together with Keith Gilmour (of Unintelligent Design fame), and the Rev Andrew Frater, of the Thinking Allowed critical theology lecture series, and chaired by Alex Wood, ex-politician, education consultant, and journalist. Here are the notes of my own introductory remarks; for the other speakers’ remarks, and a fuller discussion, see here.

A not-so-cheerful prognosis

I see much of merit within religion, and hope that it can get its house in order. But I’m not optimistic. I see tough times ahead, and an increasing threat from obscurantist fundamentalism at the very moment when Government is unloading its responsibilities onto the churches.

Tough times ahead

Population pressure; built-in momentum will push this to 8 billion in the next 25 years

Rising food prices worldwide

Economic instability

Growing inequality

Failed states, wars, terrorism; consider Congo, Somalia, Afghanistan, Mali, Iraq

Nuclear proliferation; North Korea, Iran… and when a nuclear power is also a failing state, like North Korea and Pakistan in their different ways, what then?

Climate change; I wish it wasn’t happening but it is

The realities of power

 Representatives of religion complain of being marginalised, but the very opposite is the case. The embedded power of religion includes

School advisory boards, with representatives in Scotland of Church of Scotland and the Catholic Church, and religious observance (not just instruction) in all state schools

Chaplaincies, paid for with public money, in Universities, the armed forces, and the financially struggling NHS

“Christian value” pressure groups, some with esteemed and well-connected educators

26 Church of England Bishops in the House of Lords, involved in making the laws that affect us all

Privileged access to politicians; Cardinal O’Brien, during his last months in office, met Scotland’s first Minister several times in a n attempt to influence legislation

For the first time, a Minister for Religion in the UK government

Government abdication adds to this power

On 1 Jan this year, Justin Welby, designate Archbishop of Canterbury, said that the financial crisis could signal the “greatest moment of opportunity since the Second World War” for churches to grow

Food banks run by Trussell Trust (Evangelical); now over 300, up from 20 pre-crisis Thank goodness, by which I mean human goodness, that someone is running these things, but do we really want to be relying on so erratic a mechanism to stop kids going to bed hungry?

100 million hours/year volunteer work by the Churches on social projects (according to Daily Telegraph, 14 Feb). This would be worth 50,000 full time employees, or over £1 bn

Schools; One third of schools in England are already religious. CofE plans for more

Just when religion is under threat from within

General drift away from religion

But difficult times favour extreme beliefs

Upsurge of absolutism

Biblical literalist and creationist infiltration

Example of infiltration; Highland Theological College

No ancient institution, but Founded in 1994; Now part of University of Highlands and Islands

Awarding its own degrees since 2008

Website: “This enables HTC to retain its strongly evangelical, Reformed ethos within the university sector giving HTC a unique opportunity to impact on the training of ministers from a number of denominations.” No two ways about what they’re doing

Church of Scotland has been sending seminarians there since 2006

Why is this their theology our problem?

Basis of faith (from website), to which all teaching staff must subscribe: Bible “verbally inspired by Almighty God and therefore without error.” How does the College interpret this?

Website lists only two theologians among trustees, both of whom have written books promulgating literal six-day creationism, and both based in US Southern Baptist seminaries; Douglas F Kelly of Reformed Theological Seminary, Charlotte, North Carolina, author of Creation and Change, and the Rev Dr J Ligon Duncan III, Reformed Theological Seminary Jackson, Mississippi, author of The Genesis Debate

HTC teaching based on doctrine that (I quote)[1] a historical Fall “has ushered us into a state of bitter bondage, sad shame and total depravity”

So do we want our children taught that the earth was created 6,000 years ago, and that as a result of what happened at that time they themselves were born totally depraved?

More generally, do we want

… to be receiving a wide range of social services from religious organisations

at the same time that religion is losing its appeal

and its organisations are being infiltrated by the enemies of reason?

If not, what can we do about it?

[1] Information supplied “in the spirit of openness” by HTC in response to a Freedom of Information request, which the College did not, however, agree that it was required to answer.

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