Posts Tagged ‘Creationism’

Vox Political: Kipper and Conservative MP Douglas Carswell in Row with Scientists over Tides

September 20, 2016

This piece by Mike over at Vox Political is a real gem, as it encapsulates the profound anti-intellectualism and sheer bone-headed stupidity of the Tories and the Kippers. Mike has posted up a piece commenting on a report in the Independent that Douglas Carswell, the former Tory and now Kipper MP for Clacton, has got into a row with Britain’s scientists over the origins of tides. Conventional science holds that they’re caused by the Moon. Carswell, however, believes they’re caused by the Sun, and has challenged a top scientist at Sussex University’s Science Policy Research Unit over the issue.

The report also notes that this bizarre claim was made after Michael Gove declared that the British people were tired of experts after he failed to name one economist, who thought that Brexit would be good for Britain.

The title of Mike’s piece just about sums up the astonishment Carswell’s claim must cause in everybody, who has any idea about science: Both Tories and Kippers Have Made Douglas Carswell an MP. Read This and Asky Why?

Both Tories and Kippers have made Douglas Carswell an MP. Read this and ask: Why?

Quite. If you’re wondering whether the Moon does cause tides, Mike over in his piece has a clip of Brian Cox explaining the phenomenon.

I’ve a feeling that as far back as the ancient Greeks, it was known that the Moon caused tides. Certainly the great medieval philosopher and scientist Robert Grosseteste of Lincoln knew about it in the Twelfth century. As he was writing several centuries before Isaac Newton discovered the Law of Gravity, Grosseteste believed that they were caused by the Moon’s magnetism, rather than its gravitational effect on Earth. Still, you can’t expect too much of the people of that period, when science was still very much in its infancy. But it nevertheless shows the astonishing advances the people of the Middle Ages were capable of, simply using the most primitive of equipment, observation, and the power of their minds.

This simple fact, that the Moon causes the Earth’s tides, has been put in thousands of textbooks on astronomy and space for children since at least the beginning of mass education and popular science. Astronomy has been a popular hobby for amateurs since at least beginning of the 20th century, and I’ve no doubt probably as far back as the 19th. Generations of children have had the opportunity to learn that the Moon causes tides, along with other interesting and fascinating facts about space. Carswell, however, is clearly the exception, having rejected all that.

It all brings to my mind the conversation Blackadder has with Tom Baker’s bonkers sea captain, Redbeard Rum, in the epdisode ‘Potato’ from the comedy show’s second series. Trying to impress Good Queen Bess by sailing abroad as explorers, Blackadder, Percy and Baldrick plan to fake their expedition by sailing round and round the Isle of Wight instead until they get dizzy. They get lost instead as Rum believes it is possible to sail a ship without a crew. When they ask him if you really can, Rum replies, ‘Opinion is divided.’
‘So who says you don’t?’
‘Me.’
‘So who says you do?’
‘Everybody else.’
‘Bugger!’

Quite.

This exactly describes Carswell’s attitude to space physics. Everybody else believes the Moon causes the tides, except him. I can see this causing yet another panic amongst scientists and ‘science educators’. Way back around 2009, the 150th anniversary of the publication of Darwin’s Origin of the Species, various scientists like Richard Dawkins were running around demanding better science education because polls showed a majority of the British public didn’t believe in it. This was partly a response to the growth in Creationism and Intelligent Design, though both of these views of evolution have had a very limited impact over here in Britain. That controversy seems to have quietened down, though the issue of the continuing need for improved science education has carried on with the persistence denial of climate change and anthropogenic global warming by the Right in both America and Britain. One of the sceptics of global warming and climate change over on this side of the Pond is Nigel Lawson. He’s even written a book about it, which I found the other day in another of Cheltenham’s secondhand book shops. Now that Carswell’s made this statement about the tides, which flies in the face of everything scientists have known since blokes like Aristotle, it wouldn’t surprise me if today’s leading science communicators, like Dawkins, Robert Winston, Alice Roberts, Brian Cox and the rest of them started worrying about this issue as well. And I wouldn’t blame them if they did.

As for Gove’s comment that ‘People in Britain are fed up of experts’, this also reminds me another comment by the American comedian, Bill Hicks. ‘Do I detect an air of anti-intellectualism in this country? Seems to have started about 1980 [the year Reagan was elected].’

If you’re worried that the Tories and UKIP don’t understand science, and are going to take us back to the Dark Ages, be afraid: you’re right. And heaven help the rest of us with them in charge.

Secular Talk on Pro-Slavery Textbook Used Today in Arizona Academy School

August 18, 2016

Unfortunately, school textbooks presenting a rosy, positive view of slavery for American school children do not appear to be a thing of the past. In this piece from 2014, Secular Talk’s Kyle Kulinski talks about the scandal over a couple of books used in the state’s oldest charter school, the Heritage Academy. They’re written by an activist, Cleon Scousy, and called The Five Thousand Year Leap and The Making of America. The secularist activist group, United Citizens for the Separation of Church and State, have complained that it pushes Christian nation propaganda and other Christian religious teachings. It’s been embraced by the largest of the 14,000 or so Tea Party organisations, which has hailed it as ‘a handbook of Tea Party ideals’. Kulinski compares this with the outrage that would be generated by right-wing media organisations, like Fox News, if a left-wing, progressive text book was produced, and was welcomed in similar glowing terms as ‘a handbook of progressive ideals’ from a left-wing organisation. The right-wing radio and TV host, Glen Beck, has also endorsed it, which Kulinski also points out should be a red flag to progressive activists and lawmakers. Beck’s extremely right-wing. He’s known for hysterical rants and breaking down in tears, because atheist pagan Socialists are coming for American freedom, and are about to put all good Christians in concentration camps. He’s stunningly bonkers.

Critics of the books have stated that it presents a very racist view of American history. Covering the American Civil War, it argues that slavery was beneficial for the slaves, and that racism only began with the incursion of Northern troops and their demands for equality for the slaves. Kulinski dispels the idea that this could just be a hostile interpretation of an ambiguous text by quoting a passage from the book that states that if coloured children ran about naked, it was from choice, and when the White boys were forced to put on shoes and go to school, they often envied the freedom of their ‘coloured playmates’. The book also blames the North for the Civil War, calling it ‘the War of Northern Aggression’. Kulinski is naturally outraged, and responds by saying that this is well beyond what is or should be acceptable, stating that perhaps the American Civil War should be ‘the War of Slave-Masters’ Aggression on their Slaves’, and pointing out that the North was justified in coming to put an end to it.

Kulinski argues that books like this are handicapping America’s children. By presenting such false views, they help to create a situation where America won’t get the patents her industries demand and the technical and scientific advances the country needs, and where its infrastructure will fall apart, as it’s doing now. America’s heading for the kind of dystopia portrayed in the film Idiocracy, where everyone in a future America is monumentally thick.

I don’t agree with all of his Kulinski’s comments. I went to a church school, and so don’t see anything particularly wrong with schools offering a Christian education to parents, who want it. We also had some excellent science teachers, so I can honestly say we were not stopped from appreciating science or studying it, including evolution. But this is a much more controversial issue in America, where Creationism is far more popular than over here.

But Kulinski is nevertheless right about textbooks like these damaging children’s education. It presents a racist view of American history as normal and beneficial, and so prevents the development of a truly just, multiracial society based on equal rights and justice for all, regardless of gender or skin colour. And extreme right-wing politics, which stress the importance of private enterprise over the state, are damaging the nation’s infrastructure through lack of investment.

I find it truly horrifying that such a view could still be taught now, in the 21st century, and am worried that some of the right-wing nutters over here will try to import such racism into our political discourse.

Book Review: The Great City Academy Fraud – Part 3

July 13, 2016

Academy Fraud Pic

Francis Beckett (London: Continuum 2007)

Academies and the Curriculum

There are also major concerns about what academies actually teach. Beckett writes from a secular viewpoint, and is very sceptical about the involvement of the churches and evangelical groups in running schools. He states that there may be a democratic argument to be put forward in favour of handing schools over to religious organisations, but this has not been made. Instead, he cites quotes from Peter Vardy and the Roman Catholic spokesman for education in Scotland, McGrath, who regret that the churches have relinquished schools to the state. He shows how the churches, including the Church of England, are trying to get into education with the aim of indoctrinating a new generation of believers. Beckett isn’t entirely opposed to religious involvement in schooling. He has nothing against the traditional compromise, in which schools offered religious education and an act of daily worship, but were otherwise left to get on with things. But the religious character of some of these schools does become a problem, such as their refusal to employ staff of a different faith, or when most of their pupils are non-Christians, such as Muslims. Or when the Christian ethos is expected to get down into lessons like pottery. Peter Vardy and his organisation are a matter of considerable concern, because of Vardy’s determination to teach Creationism as an acceptable scientific theory, which has been criticised by the Royal Society, amongst others.

It is not just the religious organisations that present problems with the subjects taught at academies. Sponsors are also able to set the curriculum, and so this reflects the particular interests of the businessman or organisation sponsoring the academy. In academies run by particular firms, the emphasis may be on those skills the firm requires, even though several of them have denied that they are in fact doing so. Beckett makes the point that these firms are effectively training ‘the worker bees of industry’ for tomorrow. Where the sponsor is a sports club, the academy, naturally enough, specialises in sport. The result is that subjects like technology and business are favourite subjects with sponsors, but ordinary, valuable subjects like English, Maths and languages, for which there is also a need, are much less well represented.

Driving Down Other Schools

Beckett also describes how academies also work to drive down the other schools in their areas. Academies may received massive funding from government – like £37 million – while something like £2 – £6 million may be granted to maintain the other state schools in the area. Academies thus may become the favoured choice for parents. They are also highly selective. There is evidence that very many of the academies expel difficult pupils, thus passing them on to the conventional state sector. Many of them also opt to select 10 per cent of their intake according to ability. Or they may choose to take them by banding. In this instance, children are divided into three bands of above average, average, and below average educational performance/ capacity. Schools following this method of selection take equal numbers of all the above bands. However, as academies were designed to raise standards in areas where there may be considerable deprivation, the lowest bands may fill up very rapidly, because of the way poverty brings down educational performance and expectations. So the new academy doesn’t take on all the ‘failing’ pupils in its deprived areas. Several of the academies in deprived inner cities targeted not local parents, but those further out in the leafy suburbs, who could be expected to be more affluent and send brighter, more capable pupils to their schools.

The Poorer Performing Schools Doing well In Spite of Disadvantages

And some of the schools that were declared ‘failing’, and slated to be turned into academies, actually were performing very well under circumstances over which they had no control. One of these schools, for example, was in an area where there was a large number of refugee children, none of whom were fluent in English. This school, however, had high staff morale, and provided value for money in the considerable improvement it made on these children’s grades from a very low base. This was before ‘value’ was taken into consideration, however, and Blair and his minions decided that the school wasn’t performing well enough.

No Improvement over State Schools

It is also very unclear whether academies provide any value for money or improvement over conventional state schools. Beckett presents a number of stats, which show that at one time, 11 out of 14 academies were in the bottom 200 schools. Where they did improve, it was quite often through transferring the less academically able pupils from GCSEs to GNVQs, which count as four GCSEs in the stats. When this is accounted for, the supposed superior performance of academies simply vanishes. And some of the improvements are simply achieved because vast sums of money were thrown at a failing school. Any school would have improved under these circumstances, and it’s a good question whether these schools would have improved more, if they had been under proper LEA control.

Academies and Cash for Honours (and Tony)

One of the book’s chapters is on the individuals, that Tony Blair took on board to sponsor the academies. As with so much of Blairite New Labour, there was more than a whiff of corruption about this. Money changed hands, so that sponsors could get a seat in the House of Lords or some other honour. One member of the department dealing with setting up the academies found the full force of the law, when he was caught in a sting operation by the Sunday Times. He had supposedly offered a lady journalist, posing as potential sponsor, the possibility of various honours. He was then arrested at 7.30 in the morning, and flung in jail on potential corruption charges, his career in government at an end. Meanwhile, the Blairite spin machine went into overdrive, with various Blairites, including David Miliband, declaring that no such sale was taking place. But politics was deeply involved, as many of those sponsoring academies had made generous donations and loans to the Labour party. Several of these were under investigation by the rozzers.

Thom Hartmann and Randi Weingarten of RT Discuss US Charter Schools

February 1, 2016

This is really interesting. It’s a report on the campaign to privatise education in America by Thom Hartmann, the anchor of the news show Screwed on the RT network. He and his guest, Randi Weingarten, the head of the American Federation of Teachers, discuss the way the public (state) school system in the US is being run down, and replaced by privately-run charter schools under the school voucher system that allows state funding to go to the private sector. Weingarten states that in areas where the state schools have been replaced by these private schools, the education is not better. Weingarten also makes the excellent point that in areas where the public schools were shut down, because they were failing, so were the private charter schools. but these escaped being axed. Nor are these schools less expensive, and in fact there have been numerous cost overruns. One area the scheme was supposed to cost only $9 million, but this ballooned to $40 million.

These closures have been pushed through by unelected school boards against the wishes of parents and teachers. There have been campaigns against these closures by the local communities, whose members have even included local clergy. These have been brushed aside.

Moreover, there is concern about the textbooks used in the new private schools. These include material provided by the libertarian John Stossel organisation, which teach Creationism, Hippies were dirty and that celebrate the KKK. Weingarten admits that these schools had some advantages – they were safer, and had more interaction between students and staff, but these advantages could and should be introduced into the public schools without those schools closing.

I’m reblogging this as this is exactly what is going in Britain with the expansion of the academies. And just as the Americans would like to privatise the schools and hand them over to John Stossel and Bill Gates, so the Tories in Britain would like to hand them over to the private academy chains and media moguls like Rupert Murdoch. And just as the charter schools in America don’t perform any better than state schools, so many of the academies over here don’t perform any better, and some actually much worse, than state schools. But you won’t hear that from the Tories’ Thicky Nikki Morgan, who didn’t even want to tell the BBC’s anchor, Charlie Stayt, how many academies were taken back into state management last year. She just ploughed on with her prepared speech about how dreadful state schools were, and the need for efficient private management.

There is a determined campaign to wreck state education on both sides of the Atlantic, conducted by some of the same people. This must be stopped, and proper state education and high standards restored.

Rupert Murdoch and the Ending of Affirmative Action in California

January 29, 2016

Among the other fascinating pieces in Cockburn and St. Clair’s End Times: The Death of the Fourth Estate, is an interesting little piece on Proposition 209 in the chapter ‘How the Media Use Blacks to Chastise Blacks’ by Ishmael Reed. Proposition 209 was the law that ended Affirmative Action for Blacks in California. It was ostensibly introduced by Ward Connerly, who was himself Black. In fact, Connerly was merely the front man to give a spurious multi-racial gloss to the campaign. Behind the scenes the campaign was funded and promoted by a number of right-wing billionaires and racist groups. These included Richard Mellon Scaife, who also gives money to attacking climate change and promoting Creationism, and the Pioneer Fund. This is a group specialising in trying prove a connection between race and heredity. Up to the 1960s its single largest contributor was Wickliffe Draper. Draper was, appropriately enough for his name, a textile magnate. He was also a vehement racist, who worked with the House Committee on UnAmerican Activities. He wanted to prove that Blacks were naturally racially inferior, and should be sent back to Africa.

And a certain Australian-American newspaper baron and general media mogul also spent $200,000 on the campaign to stop Black Californians getting a helping hand: Rupert Murdoch. The man really is a menace to everything decent and civilised on all continents.

UKIP, Islamophobia and the Loud Atheism Website

April 18, 2015

On Thursday, Hope Not Hate published a piece UKIP’s Stretford & Urmston Candidate Thinks Islam is “Despicable” reporting that Kalvin Chapman, the UKIP parliamentary candidate for Stretford and Urmston, Kalvin Chapman, had posted a comment on the ‘Loud Atheism’ Facebook page attacking Islam. He described it as a ‘despicable’ and ‘f***ed up’.

The article’s at http://www.hopenothate.org.uk/ukip/ukip-s-stretford-urmston-candidate-thinks-islam-is-despicable-4397, if you want to see it.

Now I have the impression that this is pretty much par for the course for much of the ‘New Atheist’ movement. This is the form of organised atheism that emerged in late decade, led by Richard Dawkins, Sue Blackmore, Christopher Hitchens and Daniel C. Dennett. The movements critics have pointed out that by and large the New Atheism didn’t have any new arguments, except perhaps an extension of Darwinian theory to try and explain religious belief. In the case of Sue Blackmore and Daniel C. Dennett, it had an extremely reductive view of human consciousness that saw it as being nothing more than a series of biological computer programmes. Sue Blackmore in particular took this to its most logically absurd extent and denied consciousness actually existed.

If the arguments were largely the same, traditional arguments used against religious belief and organised religion, the presentation was quite different. It was much more vicious, vitriolic and intolerant. Atheist movements in the past have persecuted organised religion. Religious belief in the former Communist bloc was severely limited and fiercely persecuted, with religious believers killed or sent to forced labour camps. In the former Soviet Union the penalty for holding a religious service in your own home would see you arrested and your house demolished.

The older, atheist tradition in the West could be much more genteel. Angry revolutionaries like the Surrealist film-maker Bunuel and his counterparts could and did make blasphemous films and art attacking organised religion in general and Roman Catholicism in particular. In the 1950s they held a mock trial of the Roman Catholic church in a disused church just outside Paris, while the Surrealists’ leader, Andre Breton, wrote an article denouncing recent attempts to combine surrealism with Christianity, entitled ‘To Your Kennels, Curs of God’.

Against this, there were atheist intellectuals like A.J. Ayer and Ludovik Kennedy, who were much less personally abusive. Kennedy when he appeared on Mark Lamarr’s chat show, Lamarr’s Attacks, in the 1990s, was courteous and polite. A.J. Ayer became friends with a Jesuit priest after having a Near Death Experience choking on a piece of fish in hospital. It didn’t make him become a religious believer, but the incident does show that people of differing and opposed religious views needn’t be personal enemies.

The New Atheism, by contrast, was much more aggressive, with a far greater use of invective. Rather than merely being attacked intellectually, religious and religious belief should be actively discouraged and given much less tolerance. Richard Dawkins has been quoted by his critics as saying that religious believers should be humiliated and shamed into abandoning their beliefs.

The result of this is that some atheist websites have a reputation for abuse and invective, like P.Z. Myers’ The Panda’s Thumb, set up to defend evolution from creationism, and Raving Atheism. I was warned off the latter by a friend, who said it was just atheists being extremely blasphemous and abusive for the sake of it.

To be fair, this approach has its critics from within the atheist movement, many of whom are genuinely shocked at how extreme and bitterly intolerant the New Atheist rhetoric is. A few years ago one atheist writer published an article in one of the papers actually saying that Richard Dawkins’ made him ashamed to be an atheist. And within the last couple of years in particular a strain of Islamophobia has emerged within the New Atheist movement. Again, this has been exemplified by Richard Dawkins, who become the subject of further controversy because of his posts and tweets attacking Islam, particularly the low status of women in Islamic countries and Female Genital Mutilation. Chapman’s comments about Islam are part of this strand of New Atheism.

And the fear of Islam, or at least radical Islamism, may have been one of the catalysts of the New Atheism from the start. I was talking to a friend of mine a while ago about the origins of the New Atheism. I thought it was a reaction to the growth of Creationism and Intelligent Design, which recognises the emergence of new species over time, but claims this is due to the intervention of intelligent agencies, rather than the mechanism of random mutation and natural selection, suggested by Neo-Darwinian theory. I also wondered if it was also due to the accession to the Presidency of George ‘Dubya’, an Evangelical Christian, and the increasing power and influence of the Christian religious right in American politics.

My friend took a different view. He believed it was a reaction to 9/11 and the rise of aggressive Islamic terrorist movements, like al-Qaeda, and radical and aggressive Islamic political movements within the largely secular West, such as Hizb-ut-Tahrir. He stated that some of Atheists’, Agnostics’ and Secularists’ Societies set up on university campus in practice were little more than anti-Islam societies.

Now I don’t know how true this is. The AAS at Bristol University did not seem to be particularly interested in Islam, only in attacking religion in general. The events and lectures it organised seemed generally disrespectful, such as a social evening in which members were encouraged to dress up as their favourite religious figure. One of their lectures was a general account of traditional, religious beliefs about the creation of the world from antiquity onwards.

Now I do believe that if you are going to criticise religion, then this should extend to all religions, rather than just Christianity as the former majority, mainstream religion of the West. However, in the case of Islam at the moment, such criticism has become extremely dangerous. It can easily lead to the persecution of innocents, including racist attacks and the demonization of Islam generally because of the atrocities committed by the Islamist militants. This in turn may fuel the alienation and resentment in Muslim communities, and further the Islamists’ goal of their further radicalisation.

In the case of Chapman, I’m not surprised that his post against Islam was particularly splenetic, given the title of the website on which it was posted. What is worrying is that it comes from a prospective parliamentary candidate for a party that has developed a reputation for racism and a bitter hostility to Islam.

Have Scientists from Sheffield University Found Life from Outer Space?

September 19, 2013

A team of scientists from Sheffield University believe that they may have discovered extraterrestrial life. According to this story on MSN News http://news.uk.msn.com/uk/has-life-from-space-just-accidentally-arrived-on-earth/ a group from the University’s department of molecular biology and biotechnology under Professor Milton Wainwright sent a balloon 27 km up into the stratosphere during the recent Perseid meteor shower. The balloon was launched from Chester and came down near Wakefield. The balloon carried microscope studs, which were set to open between 22 and 27 km above the Earth. To ensure that the results were not contaminated by organisms from the Earth’s surface, the equipment was sterilised before it was launched.

When it returned, it was found that the studs had collected a variety of microscopic organisms. Some were diatoms, a form of algae, along with more unusual life-forms. Prof Wainwright said “It is generally accepted that a particle of the size found cannot be lifted from Earth to heights of, for example, 27km. In the absence of a mechanism by which large particles like these can be transported to the stratosphere, we can only conclude that the biological entities originated from space. Our conclusion then is that life is continually arriving to Earth from space. Life is not restricted to this planet and it almost certainly did not originate here. If life does continue to arrive from space then we have to completely change our view of biology and evolution. New textbooks will have to be written!”

Disease Space

The team’s finding appears to corroborate the highly controversial views of the origin and evolution of life on Earth of the late Sir Fred Hoyle and his colleague, Professor Chandra Wickramasinghe. Panspermia is the theory that life originated in space and later colonised Earth. It was first put forward in the 19th century by the Swedish astronomer, Svante Aarhenius. In the late 1970s and early ’80s Fred Hoyle and Chandra Wickramasinghe wrote a series of books Lifecloud (London: Dent 1978), Diseases from Space (London: Sphere 1979) and Evolution from Space (London: J.M. Dent 1981), reviving and expanding the theory. They suggested that not only had life come to Earth from space, but that it was viruses and bacteria continued to arrive from space to infect humans and another creatures here on Earth.

Most controversially, they suggested in the last book that Darwin’s theory of evolution was inadequate to explain the evolution of the Earth’s creatures. They argued that the process of evolution was actually too rapid to be cause by what they viewed as they slow processes of Natural Selection operating on random mutation. They considered instead that evolution was actually driven through viruses and other genetic material entering and mutating terrestrial organisms from space. More speculatively still, they suggested that the seeding of such genetic material on Earth was done deliberately by advanced extraterrestrial civilisations. They suggested that these would artificial, machine intelligences from another cosmos in the multiverse. Their theory that evolution has been consciously directed is extremely similar to Intelligent Design, proposed and supported by the mathematicians and scientists William Dembski and Michael Behe. Most of the supporters of Intelligent Design are religious, and the theory has been severely attacked as a form of Creationism.

Evolution Space

This is not the first time a scientific balloon has returned from the stratosphere containing what was suggested was extraterrestrial microbial life. A few years a balloon sent up by scientists in India returned to Earth with red slime. Like Prof Wainwright, the Indian scientists believed this material had been collected from too high an altitude for it to have come from the Earth. They came to the conclusion that it must therefore have come from space. Fred Hoyle died twenty or so years ago in the 1990s. The media did contact Chandra Wickramasinghe, who was then working at Cardiff University, if I recall correctly. Prof Wickramasinghe was delighted that there was now further evidence to support his and Sir Fred’s theory.

Meanwhile, Prof Wainwright’s team intend to repeat the experiment in October, when there is a meteor shower associated with Halley’s Comet. This will spread further cosmic dust. If the balloon returns again with similar material, it will confirm the team’s theory.

All this is fascinating and highly controversial. I don’t think, however, there’s any remote chance of them finding anything like the horrific extraterrestrial disease in Michael Creighton’s book and film, The Andromeda Strain.

Bill Bailey’s Jungle Hero Pt. 2

April 29, 2013

Yesterday saw the last part of Bill Bailey’s programme exploring the work of the Victorian explorer, Alfred Russell Wallace, and his independent discovery of the Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection. The show followed Wallace’s expedition through Indonesia, Malaya and Sarawak collecting specimens, and the creatures that spurred his discovery of the motor of evolution. In Darwin’s case, this was the famous finches he found in the Galapagos islands. In Wallace’s case, it was the different varieties of macaque and a species of tree-climbing kangaroo. Bailey pointed out the dividing line in that part of the eastern Pacific dividing the types of animals in that part of the world. Still called the Wallace Line after him, it separated animals characteristic of Indonesia and Malaya to the east, while to the west were those of Australia. The macaques Wallace found in the rest of the Indonesian and Malayan islands were grey with tales. On the island of Ternate, they were black without tails. They also had a tuft of hair which Bailey described as a mohican. In a piece of self-deprecating humour Bailey posed for the cameras, showing the apparent similarity between his own features and those of the macaques. Like David Attenborough with the gorillas in Life on Earth way back in 1979, Bailey seemed to get on well with primates. He sat very still while the macaques came up to him, investigated and sniffed him, and accepted him as one of their own. In the Australian ecological zone, Wallace discovered the tree-climbing kangaroos. With their smaller front paws and large hind legs, these animals weren’t well adapted to the arboreal existence. The programme showed a few of them gingerly making their way up the trees, with several mis-steps. This conflicted with the Natural Theology of the day, which, according to the programme, declared that each species of animal had been separately created. When the environment changed, and the animals died out, God simply created a new species of that particular animal which was better suited to its environment. Wallace also noted that some of the animals on different islands differed strongly from their cousins elsewhere. Looking at maps of the sea depth in the Indonesian and Malayan achipelagos near Irian Jaya, he theorised that whwere the sea was shallow there were once land bridges allowing species to cross from one island to another. The ease of access between 5these islands meant that these species remained closely related. The much deeper waters around the other islands meant that these islands were colonised by castaways, which drifted there. Cut off from the rest of the world, the creatures there evolved into markedly more different forms. The question remained of the actual motor of evolution, the process that brought these species into being. A bout of acute malarial fever led Wallace to remember Malthus’ Theory of Population, and he realised that quite small differences in an animal’s constitution could give it an advantage in the struggle for existence, such as larger eyes for finding insects in the case of lemurs. He thus discovered Natural Selection.

Attempt to Restore Wallace to Prominence with Darwin

Bailey was keen to take his hero out from under Darwin’s shadow, and the shadow the maneouvering that had taken place to make sure Darwin was not pre-empted by Wallace. Wallace was delighted when Darwin accepted him as one of his collectors. However, when Wallace sent Darwin a letter discussing his activities and his formation of a new theory of evolution, Darwin sent a polite reply telling him that he was working on his own, and implying that he should stay away in the tropics and not hurry back. When Wallace sent Darwin his letter outlining his theory of Natural Selection, Darwin was shaken. He had spent the last eight years working on barnacles to support his own theory, which he still had not published. Quickly consulting his friends, including the geologist Charles Lyell, Darwin decided to rush his own account, The Origin of Species, into print. He also read out a paper he wrote on evolution to a meeting of the Royal Society with Wallace’s paper. He did not ask Wallace’s permission, and Wallace was not even aware this had occurred until he returned to Britain. Bailey stated that, depending on your point of view, it was either a delicate compromise or a highly shameful episode.Nevertheless, after over a century of undeserved relative obscurity, Wallace was being accorded the honour that rightfully was his. At a meeting in the Natural History Museum, Bailey unveiled a portrait of the great man to hang alongside Darwin’s statue.

Bailey and Wallace in Ternate

It was a fascinating programme. As I said in my review of the first episode, Bailey is an affable, knowledgable host. Not only did the programme have some superb footage of the animals in Indonesia and Malaya, it also showed some equally interesting episodes with the human inhabitants of these islands. Bailey attempted to recreate the style of Wallace’s expedition, including what he ate, and his historic meeting with one of the countries’ rulers. When on his expedition, Wallace was forced to eat what he found in the rainforest. Thus, in another moment worhty of Ray Mears, he was shown eating a fruit bat. Bailey picked delicately at it, while his Indonesian hosts downed it with gusto. Wallace had had to get the permission of the Sultan of Ternate before he could travel there on his collecting mission. So Bailey also sought an audience with his highness. He therefore appeared outside the Sultan’s palace dressed in white linen suit, cravat and panama hat, while liveried courtiers and guards ushered him in. Eventually he was allowed into the Sultan’s presence. As you’d probably expect, the Sultan himself spoke excellent English, and was voluble on the subject of Wallace. Wallace himself appears to have been the subject of local pride.
In a street near the waterfront Bailey found a mural of the eminent Victorian on the wall of a building. Beneath it, in Indonesian, was the legend ‘Alfred Russell Wallace, Ternate scientist born England’. Ternate clearly viewed him as one of their own.

Victorian Society Increasingly Inclined towards Evolution not Mentioned

It was an excellent programme, but as I mentioned in my previous post, I have a few, major objections to it. Firstly, it didn’t mention how Wallace’s theory differed from Darwin’s. Unlike Darwin, Wallace believed that evolution was teleological, working towards higher and better forms of life. He also believed that human intelligence and our moral sense could not have been shaped by Natural Selection, but were the result of the intervention of spiritual entities. The programme stressed that Wallace’s theory was in conflict with Natural Theology and the scientific and religious establishment. It did not mention how scientific and theological opinion in Britain was actually turning away from Natural Theology and embracing evolution. I mentioned some of the reasons for this in my last blog post on the subject. In addition to these there was the influence of John Henry, later Cardinal Newman. Natural Theology was closely associated with William Paley, whose book was the major work on the subject at the time. Paley, however, was linked with the Benthamite Utilitarians. By the 1840s there was a reaction against Utilitarian philosophy. Newman rejected Natural Theology as it reduced the existence and operation of the Lord to a purely scientific question. At the time Darwin and Wallace were working, there was already a large body of opinion, both inside and outside the church, that was favourably inclined towards evolution.

Links between Darwin-Wallace Theory and Lamarckianism

The programme also claimed that ‘Natural Selection’ was a radical theory. This is also open to question. Some of the Lamarckians, like Geoffroy, were also including it as an evolutionary mechanism before Darwin and Wallace. The Lamarckians had also discovered the theory of ‘adaptive radiation’, in which different species emerge as the parent species spreads out to colonise new territories before Darwin. Darwin even had one of their books on his shelf on the Beagle. The programme did mention that an earlier letter Wallace had written about the subject was dismissed as ‘nothing new’. There is therefore the question of how novel Wallace’s and Darwin’s theories actually were. In the case Darwin’s theory, it was still quite Lamarckian as Darwin believed in the inheritance of acquired characteristics.

Subtext of Programme against Intelligent Design?

The other problem with the programme is that it seems to be subtly written against Intelligent Design. The view that God creates new, improved species after the extinction of their predecessors sounds close to the modern Intelligent Design view that new species are created through an intelligence generating or inserting new information into the genome. For theists, this intelligence is the Almighty, though the official ID position is that the identity of the Designer is unknown.

Medieval Natural Philosophers accepted Some Speciation due to Natural Forces

Now I have to say, I don’t know how prevalent this theory of speciation by divine action was at the time of Darwin. It sounds like the views of Richard Owen, the great Victorian naturalist whose statue used to stand in the Natural History Museum until ousted by Darwin four years ago. But previous generations of Natural Philosophers had also accepted that some speciation was due to natural forces. Ancient Greek anthropologists, including the medical authority Hippocrates, believed that the different races of humanity and their different temperaments were the result of differing climates and geographical influences. In the Middle Ages authorities such as the 15th century bishop of Paris, Pierre d’Ailly, stated that new species had emerged after the Flood when different animals moved into different environments. The types of animals were roughly fixed, but new species could arise from these types through natural, environmental influences. I have to say, I don’t know if this view was still current at the time of Darwin and Wallace, but it certainly had been present in evolutionary thought before them. It would have been good if the programme had mentioned this. In this case the programme looks less like a simple attempt to restore a forgotten Victorian scientific hero and more like another piece in the attack on Creationism and Intelligent Design.

Wallace still Scientifically Disreputable

As for Wallace himself, Bailey stated that there seemed to be still some reluctance to be seen mentioning him. He said that while he was making the series, he had various scientists sidle up to him saying, ‘If you want any information on Wallace, here’s my card’, while looking around to see that they were not overheard. Bailey wondered why it was that the great Victorian should still be seen as somewhat disreputable and a danger to the careers of contemporary scientists. Though the programme didn’t say it, this might have been due to the fact that Wallace’s own theory of evolution still left explicit room for the operation of the supernatural.

Bailey’s exploration of Wallace and his almost forgotten contribution to evolutionary theory was a fascinating programme, and well worth watching. But it omitted the larger debates on the nature of the evolutionary process and the growing willingness of parts of the Church to accept evolutionary theory in favour of a simplistic narrative of lonely outsider battling class prejudice and religious ignorance. I hope that future programmes on the development of evolutionary theory will correct this view, and do more to place Wallace, Darwin and their predecessors into the context of the wider changes in scientific and theological opinion of which they were apart.

The Genesis Enigma in the Daily Mail

July 18, 2009

Today’s Daily Mail has a review of a new book by a British scientist, Professor Andrew Parker, The Genesis Enigma, that considers that the book of Genesis in the Bible accurately describes the history of the evolution of life on Earth from the Big Bang and the emergence of life and its sudden flourishing during the Cambrian Explosion, when a multitude of bizarre and fascinating forms suddenly appear in the fossil record. Professor Parker came to this theory when looking at the Sistine Chapel and the way the great events of the Bible was depicted there by Michelangelo. Professor Parker is definitely a supporter of Evolution, and states in the article that he really doesn’t want his book to be used to support a strict, seven day interpretation of the Creation of the world, or to attack the theory of evolution itself. However, he believes that the ancient Israelites could only have come by their incredibly detailed knowledge of the progress of evolution either through guesswork or by divine revelation. He considers that it is extremely unlikely that they did so by guessing, and so they had to have obtained their knowledge through revelation by the Almighty. The writer of the article, Christopher Hart, doesn’t believe that was the case, but instead considers that the writers of the Bible came to their knowledge through an observation and awareness of the nature of the world around them.

I have to say I’m not convinced by the argument. There are real problems with it, such as the argument that the description of the creation of the sun and moon after the separation of light and darkness doesn’t refer to the creation of those celestial objects, but the emergence of vision in animals. The Jewish American biologist and bioethicist, Leon R. Kass, in his book on Genesis, The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis, argues that the account of the creation of the universe and its multitude of creatures doesn’t refer to a historical process, but represents a philosophical scheme of the noetic order of the cosmos, in which objects and creatures are ordered according to whether they possessed a mind or soul, considered as the principle of movement. It’s an approach very similar to that of Thomas Aquinas, who believed that the entire universe had been created simultaneously, and that the account of the process of creation according to various days in Genesis was an account of the philosophical order of creation.

Nevertheless, it’s a fascinating article. If you want to look at it, it’s at: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1200486/The-Genesis-enigma-How-DID-Bible-evolution-life-3-000-years-Darwin.html

P.Z. Myers on Science and the Irrationality of Religion

June 16, 2009

Several months ago, Wakefield made the following remarks on P.Z. Myers’ view of religion and theology, and wondered about a response to them:

‘Second, I wanted to follow up from where he’s written elsewhere that in his mind there is no real methodology to religious belief. For something to hold water and muster, it must be rigorously researched and demonstrable. Failing this, Myers places things in the “Creationist” box, which (apparently) is a rather large
residual category for every idea or notion (certainly faith qualifies) that does not meet with scientific rigor to this man’s liking. His many defenders of course would claim these rules supercede Dr. Myers and despite Dr. Myer’s antics, still apply to science at large, whether we religious types like them or not.

Observe, that when “Creationists” (meaning anyone believing God had something to do with the Known Universe, and not just “literalists”) get “cornered” on the “facts” of biology and life and the failures of prayer, whatnot:

(Quoting verbatum from Jim Lippard’s blog honoring PZ’s many insights)

They resort to,

Key features:

1. Conspiracy
2. Selectivity
3. The fake expert(s)
4. Impossible expectations
5. The metaphor
6. The quote mine
7. Appeal to consequences ’

I’m sorry I’ve taken a while to get round to answering this. However, let’s examine some of these statements and the underlying assumptions.

Firstly, Myers seems to make the Positivist assumption that science is the supreme method for acquiring knowledge about the world, and that it is indeed the only true form of knowledge. However, there are real problems with this. One major criticism of the Positivist position is that science, by itself, cannot prove that only science alone provides true knowledge of the world, contrary to the claims of philosophy. Indeed, in order to demonstrate that science provides true knowledge of the world, it requires philosophy and metaphysics, which Positivists like Von Carnap in the 1920s rejected and denounced as ‘disreputable’. So in these, areas, the Positivist claim for the unique ability of science to provide information about the true nature of the Cosmos fails.

There is also the problem in that science is merely one of a number of different methods of acquiring knowledge about the Cosmos, and that there are areas of knowledge and experience where its methods are inapplicable. For example, in history the primary method of investigating the past is through the study of texts. Now clearly science can and does add immensely to the study of history. Psychology can provide insight into the minds and motivations of the people involved in the events of the past, and archaeology has provided immense information on the development of past societies, the way they lived and their culture. The primary source for history is still historical texts, as one cannot recreate the great events of the past in a laboratory. Moreover, the philosopher Mary Midgeley has also pointed out that other areas of human culture, such as poetry, will also produce great insights about the nature of the Cosmos before or apart from those of science. So there are areas of human knowledge, investigation and experience, where science cannot be the primary method for discovering truth.

Now let’s deal with the statement that religion is somehow wrong, because it doesn’t use the methods of science. This attitude is mistaken, because it attempts to promote the scientific method, or judge one area of human experience and culture, by scientific methods that may not apply to it. As philosophers of religion such as Martin Buber have pointed out, at the heart of religion isn’t the attempt to provide a coherent, rational description of the universe, but the sense of a personal, transcendent presence within its phenomena or beyond it. Thus the ancient Egyptian religion included a number of different gods, some of whom, offered different explanations for the phenomena they observed. Yet this did not lead to friction within the religion as the religion was based on a personal experience of these deities, not whether they simply provided a rational explanation of the Cosmos.

Now religion is a highly complex phenomenon to the point where it is difficult even to give a precise definition of it. Despite this, there are certain forms of religion – or religious investigation – that may be highly rational. For example, Neoplatonic philosophy in ancient Rome attempted to use reason to lead one into the contemplation of God, described as ‘the One’ or ‘the Good’. It was a philosophical school, but has been described as ‘the mind’s road to God’, and in this sense it could be described as a philosophical religion. So, in the case of Neo-Platonism, there certainly was a rational method of inquiry and investigation at the heart of a form of religion.

Furthermore, different religions do possess different rules governing experience and observance. Subsequent revelations or statements from transcendent entities may deepen the basic revelation at the heart of that religion, but they may not contradict it. In the Mosaic Law, any prophet who demanded the worship of any other gods than the Lord was to be rejected, as this violated the basis of Judaism in monotheism, and the revelation that there was only one God. Similarly, St. Paul recommends that Christians test every spirit they encounter, because not all spirits are from God, and some of those spirits encountered may deliberately give wrong information to mislead Christians. Judaism, Christianity and Islam also developed distinct methods to govern the interpretation of Scripture and religious worship and observance. Thomas Aquinas discussed whether theology was a science, and concluded that it was, as it possessed a distinct methodology of its own. In fact, during the Middle Ages theology used the very same methods that contemporary scientists also used in their studies – Aristotelian logic, and discussions of natural theology very often included discussions of scientific subjects and phenomena. Thus in the Middle Ages, at least, science and Christian theology certainly did possess some of the same methodology and features.

Theologians have also used science to ascertain whether some religious phenomena – miracles – are genuine. In the 18th century, the Roman Catholic clergyman leading the official investigation of reports of miracles, Prosper Lambertini, later Pope Benedict IX, compiled a handbook for their proper examination. Lambertini stipulated that this should include an examination of the miracle and the evidence for it by scientists and doctors, and his handbook has remained one of the standard, if not the standard text for the investigation of such phenomena by the Vatican until today.

Thus, while religion is a completely different area of human experience to science, nevertheless it also possesses its own relevant methodology and may include science and its methodology in order to discover the truth about some phenomena, which may be considered supernatural.

Now let’s deal with the list of seven features Myers and Lippard feel are typical of Creationists.

1. Conspiracy

This probably refers to the tactic of some Creationist groups of using two different approaches to have their views accepted by secular and religious schools. For example, some of the Creationist groups produced two different versions of their textbooks according to whether they were to be used in the public, state schools or by Christian schools. Those for use in the state schools stressed the scientific aspects of the case against evolution, but did not contain any references to the Bible, while those intended for use in Christian schools did contain references and arguments from Scripture. I suspect that Myers and Lippard consider this a conspiracy in the sense that the Creationist groups who adopt such a tactic are deliberately disguising their true intentions to reintroduce an explicitly religious doctrine into schools. Now, while some Creationists probably would like to see religious education re-introduced into schools, other Creationists traditionally didn’t, preferring that their children should be taught a view of the creation of the world and its creatures based on a literal interpretation of Genesis outside of school. These people distrusted attempts to establish a particular religious view through legislation. Thus, such tactics are only used, or have traditionally only been used, by some, but not all, Creationists.

It’s also the case that some groups critical of Darwinism have stated that they don’t want a particular view of Creation taught in schools. Members of the Discovery Institute, for example, have repeatedly stated that Intelligent Design makes no statement over who the Designer is, and don’t want a literal view of Creation taught in school or even see Intelligent Design itself taught, just the arguments against Darwinism presented alongside those for it. Now clearly many supporters of Intelligent Design are religious, but that does not mean that the arguments for it are necessarily flawed, or that their reasons for questioning the philosophical naturalism in some textbooks are unreasonable.

2. Selectivity.

This probably means the deliberately use of specific examples from biology and palaeontology to challenge the general Darwinian account of the development of life, without discussing or excluding the evidence for it. The problem with this is that while there are undoubtedly some texts that may be highly selective in their presentation of information and arguments, there are other that present a variety of arguments and information from a number of different approaches and sources. Michael Denton’s book, Evolution: A Theory In Crisis, which inspired the Intelligent Design movement, presents a number of arguments against Darwinism, as well as various examples from biology, where it could be argued that Natural Selection is inadequate as an explanation.

3. The Fake Experts

I’ve absolutely no doubt that there are a number of Creationist writers, who have little scientific expertise and who present spurious information and arguments to the public. A number of them have been strongly criticised by various Christian groups and writers on the net, who maintain websites attacking them and their views. This does not, however, mean that all the experts who reject Darwin are fakes. Some of the scientists who rejected Darwinism are extremely distinguished, such as Dr. Duane Gish, Wilder-Smith and Dr. Leonid Korochkin of the Institute of Developmental Biology of the former Soviet National Academy of Science.

4. Impossible Expectations

This looks like an attempt to counter the criticism of Darwinism that there isn’t enough supporting evidence for it. The assumption here is that people have too high expectations of the amount of evidence required to support Darwinian evolution. However, while there is indeed a vast amount of evidence to support Darwinism, some scientists have remarked that the evidence for it is not as complete or as strong as it has appeared, or was expected by scientists themselves. Thus, while some people doubtless expect too much from the evidence for Darwinism, there may indeed be real problems with it. Michael Denton, in his book, Evolution: A Theory in Crisis, indeed presents statistical arguments that there is a genuine lack of evidence for evolution, rather than the evidence exists, but has not been discovered yet.

5. The Metaphor

This might refer to the way people of faith, and particularly Creationists, view the world as an artefact created by the Almighty, often in terms very much like the way a human craftsman makes their products. However, merely because this view metaphorical does not mean it is incorrect, and that the world does not possess some of the characteristics of an artefact through its creation by an intelligent creator, in the same way that humans, who participate in God’s intelligence, also create artefacts.

6. The Quote Mine

This probably refers to use of quotes by Creationists by scientists discussing the lack of evidence, or apparent lack of evidence for Darwinism by various scientists, who may then go on in the following passage to address this problem. However, that does not mean that there isn’t a problem with the evidence for Darwinism, even if the view taken of this by a Creationist is different from that of the scientist addressing it.

7. The Argument to Consequences

This refers to the criticism of Darwinism and evolutionary theory by Creationists and other people of faith on the grounds of some of what they consider to be the social consequences of evolutionary theory. These include eugenics and the development of a worldview that apparently devalues human life, based on the view that if humanity is solely the product of evolutionary forces, then there are no transcendent values. For many people of faith, this worldview has resulted in a nihilistic culture that promotes abortion and divorce. Now the consequences of such an atheist interpretation of evolutionary theory does not mean that the theory itself is incorrect. It does, however, mean that the attempt to base morality purely on evolution, with no regard to the existence of objective, transcendent moral values, is severely flawed.