Monday, 30 June 2014

Naomi Oreskes – Why we should trust scientists

Excellent video by historian of science Naomi Oreskes on how scientists actually work, and why we should believe the scientific consensus. The executive summary of the latter? Organised scepticism.

Saturday, 28 June 2014

Special creationist is courteously corrected by anthropology professor

There's an amusing scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark where Indiana Jones, after being confronted by an expert swordsman, shrugs, shoots the man, and walks away. Never bring a knife to a gun fight. Special creationists constantly make the intellectual version of this mistake, thinking that the Chick tract Big Daddy, in which a young college student manages to intellectually destroy his atheist science professor with a few shopworn cliches happens in real life. It doesn't. What happens is more like this:

Needless to say, it is impossible to know whether any young Christadelphian has been corrected in a similar fashion unless he or she relates this story publicly, though a similar version has happened where a John Hellawell antievolution lecture was comprehensively refuted by visiting guests from the BSCE. Unfortunately, our community is priming the next generation for similar scenes by positively reviewing pseudoscientific literature such as Wilfred Alleyne's extended argument from personal incredulity which was reviewed positively and uncritically in The Testimony, and telling them that:
It could be put to many uses: use it for preparing talks on creation; students will find resources to argue the case for creation in a reasoned and well-informed way; 
The brute reality is that any young believer using those arguments is going to suffer the fate of the brash student who thought she could destroy a seasoned professional such as Tim White. We are setting up the next generation for failure by advocating fundamentalism and pseudoscience, and when they lose faith, the blame will life firmly on the YECs and extreme literalists in our community.

Thursday, 26 June 2014

Understanding creationism: An insider’s guide by a former young-Earth creationist - 5

Part 5 of David MacMillan's series on understanding the YEC mindset is up at Panda's Thumb. This time, he's looking at the YEC belief that evolutionary theory was proposed specifically to eliminate God, and how this leads on to a flawed understanding of geology and biology by YECs:
Because of this misconception, creationists rarely understand the actual history of how geology, paleontology, and biology built upon each other to provide us with our understanding of the world. Mainstream geology emerged significantly ahead of Darwin’s work; many early geologists were Christians. Studying the distribution of rock layers around the globe allowed geologists to construct a complete geologic column and begin appreciating the incredible amount of time the column represents. Moreover, the regular progression of extinct species fossilized throughout the geologic column had been well-catalogued. 
However, creationism requires that the development of evolutionary theory be ad hoc, driven by presupposition rather than by observation. As a result, they often assert that the geologic column doesn’t actually exist: that it’s cobbled together from bits and pieces around the world and that the layers aren’t actually consistent. It is true that there are few places in the world where all layers of the column (the Hadean and Archean and Proterozoic and Cambrian and Devonian and Permian and Triassic and Cretaceous and Paleocene and Miocene and Pleistocene and Holocene) are visible simultaneously, but this fact does not prevent geologists from identifying them. The layers of the geologic column are identified relative to each other using clear and consistent markers which function the same way no matter where you are in the world. Constructing and identifying the components of the geologic column is not the random guesswork creationism makes it out to be.
Full article is here.

Saturday, 21 June 2014

The UK bans the teaching of creationism as science in all publicly funded schools

Excellent news indeed. Via i09
Back in 2012, the UK government banned all future free schools from teaching creationism as science, requiring them to teach natural selection. At the time, however, it didn't extend those requirement to academies, nor did the changes apply to existing free schools. The new verbiage changes this, precluding all public-funded schools — present or future — from teaching creationism as evidence-based theory. 
The new church academies clauses require that "pupils are taught about the theory of evolution, and prevent academy trusts from teaching 'creationism' as scientific fact." And by "creationism" they mean:
[A]ny doctrine or theory which holds that natural biological processes cannot account for the history, diversity, and complexity of life on earth and therefore rejects the scientific theory of evolution. The parties acknowledge that creationism, in this sense, is rejected by most mainstream churches and religious traditions, including the major providers of state funded schools such as the [Anglican] [Catholic] Churches, as well as the scientific community. It does not accord with the scientific consensus or the very large body of established scientific evidence; nor does it accurately and consistently employ the scientific method, and as such it should not be presented to pupils at the Academy as a scientific theory.
And in regards to protecting religious beliefs, the clauses acknowledge that the funding agreement does...
...not prevent discussion of beliefs about the origins of the Earth and living things, such as creationism, in Religious Education, as long as it is not presented as a valid alternative to established scientific theory.
Seems fair and reasonable to me.
Indeed it does. A good church-run school would teach science in its science classes, and teach a theology of creationism in its RE classes, and point out that Genesis is ancient cosmology, not modern science. It would also show why YEC - and special creationism in general - is poor science and even worse theology. Now if only the US would get the message.

More Reasons for Belief

The book More Reasons is now available from Lulu. Edited by Dr Thomas Gaston, a Christadelphian with a professional interest in early Christian theology, it serves as a companion to the earlier book Reasons. Via the publisher's blurb:
In many respects the case for faith has never been stronger. The discoveries of modern physics have provided strong indication that there is an intelligence behind the universe. A renaissance in Christian philosophy has provided robust and respected defences against traditional challenges to theism. Scholars find they can no longer justify the hasty dismissal of the biblical text as either legendary or outdated. And yet despite these positive changes, religious believers find their sincere convictions dismissed as ill-founded and irrational. In this book, a number of authors bring together their various expertise and experience to continue laying out reasons for believing in God, Jesus and the Bible. Arguments are drawn from areas such as the fact of human rationality and religious experience, the divine character of the Bible, and intelligent design. These arguments provide additional support for faith in the modern world.
Definitely looks interesting. The book website is here.

Thursday, 19 June 2014

Understanding creationism: An insider’s guide by a former young-Earth creationist - 4

Former YEC David MacMillan's fourth instalment in his series on how YECs mishandle the evidence for evolution is up at Panda's Thumb. The subject? Transitional fossils:
Young-earth creationists believe that all life, living and fossil, can be grouped into a series of families – they call them baramins, a made-up Hebrew word for “created kinds” – which all existed together at the same time from the very beginning. They use this completely artificial understanding of our planet’s biosphere in generating their concept of a “missing link”: in order for something to be a “true” transitional form under their model, it would have to be something halfway between two separate created “kinds”. Because they automatically assign every species to a particular created kind and only to that created kind, their “transitional form” is something that could never exist. 
The usual parodies of evolutionary transitional fossils, like Ray Comfort’s infamous crocoduck, are openly tongue-in-cheek. But because creationists see all animals as belonging to individual, immutable kinds, they represent evolution as “change from one ‘kind’ to another” claiming that evolution predicts we should see transitions between their “created kinds”: for example, a fossil that is midway between a dog and a cat. Just as with living species, all fossil species are placed within strict “created kinds”, allowing creationists to maintain the illusion that nothing is ever “in-between”. 
This characterization is a complete misunderstanding of what evolution actually predicts. No one expects one existing species to evolve into another. The “kinds” alleged by creationism simply do not exist in the evolutionary model; there is no line between one family and another that a transitional form needs to straddle. 
What creationists don’t recognize is that the theory of evolution does not predict “transitional” fossils at all – at least, not in the way creationists expect. Evolutionary theory does not predict that there will be “normal” fossils most of the time, while chimaera-like “transitional” fossils will appear tucked in-between. Evolution has no general prediction about a unique class of transitional fossils. Instead, evolution makes predictions about the specific morphology, age, and location of the individual fossils it expects to discover. It bases these individual predictions on other specific fossils that have already been discovered.When morphology and a variety of other factors indicate that one particular species is the distant ancestor of another particular species, evolutionary principles can be used to predict the attributes of one or more intermediate species.
If science denialists could grasp one thing - that evolution is not a ladder but a tree - then much of the confusion over transitional fossils would abate. Full article here.


Wednesday, 18 June 2014

It’s time for evangelicals to come out for evolution

Baptist pastor Chuck Queen, in an excellent article exhorting theologically and scientific evangelicals to liberate their brothers and sisters from tyoung earth creationism indirectly confirms the influence YEC and evolution denialism have had on Christianity:
Harvard theologian Harvey Cox tells about the time the student leader of Harvard’s atheist group on campus took one of his theology classes. This otherwise bright student wrote a very weak paper in which he sought to discredit the God of the Christian and Jewish faiths by attacking and dismantling a literal interpretation of the Genesis flood story. He thought that by proving the story could not have happened the way the story says it happened, he would thus disprove the reality of God. 
Dr. Cox said to the student, “Don’t you know a story when you read one?”
Educated evangelicals know that the creation stories were never intended to be history lessons or science reports, because the Bible is not a history or science book.
While I would disagree with any assertion that there is absolutely no history in the early chapters of Genesis, it is true that as the Bible was written to a pre-scientific community, we should not expect anything resembling modern science in it. Once again, Genesis is ancient cosmology, not modern science.

One of course cannot blame the atheist for attacking YEC - it is sound strategy to attack something at its weakest point first. What is amusing however is the naive arrogance which comes with thinking that attacking a version of Christianity such as YEC somehow equates to overturning 2000 years of Christianity. Once again, it shows that YECs and the atheists are far closer to each other than they realise. 

Full article here.

Tuesday, 17 June 2014

Finding 'creation' in evolutionary creationism

I do not call myself a theistic evolutionist for the same reason that I do not call myself a theistic cosmologist, theistic general relativist, theistic developmental biologist or theistic meteorologist. I do not prefix 'theistic' to any other scientific discipline, and do not see the need to do the same with evolutionary biology. The term 'evolutionary creationism' is one that I did not coin, but I am happy to use it as it neatly summarises my position. I believe that the diversity of life we see now and through time owes its origins to an evolutionary process, and this was the secondary cause employed by God to create.

Science as I have said before is the search for natural explanations for natural phenomena, which means that one cannot demonstrate scientifically a supernatural hand in creation. Furthermore, as I believe God has granted creation functional integrity, I do not expect to see any 'gaps' or 'holes' in the natural world which are bridged by ad hod divine intervention. Therefore, I do not expect to see anything akin to a 'made by  YHWH' stamp in creation. That of course raises the legitimate question of whether I have simply tagged the term 'evolution' with the phrase 'creationism'.

My faith is based on the risen Christ. I don't mean that as a metaphor. Rather, having looked at the events surrounding the formation of early Christianity, I believe that the most plausible explanation is the one found in the gospel narratives - Jesus actually rose from the dead. [1-2] Evolutionary creationism is therefore an inference based on my acceptance of the fact of evolution and my belief in the reality of the God who raised Jesus from the grave. [3] Having said that, it is not unreasonable to expect in the natural world evidence, at a fundamental level, which are consistent with creation. Two lines of evidence exist which I find intriguing.

Monday, 16 June 2014

Nineteenth Century Christianity did not respond to Darwin with visceral horror.

Molecular biologist and evangelical Christian Denis Alexander has a short, accessible article which buries the myth that 19th century Christianity was hostile to Darwin, or that it cravenly surrendered to it. Anyone who advances either idea simply has no idea what he is talking about. Cue Alexander:
The very first written response to Darwin’s famous book On the Origin of Species [1859] was from an Anglican priest and was so positive in tone that Darwin quoted from it in the second edition of the Origin. The priest was the Rev. Charles Kingsley and on November 18th, 1859, six days before the publication of the Origin, he was thanking Darwin for his kind gift of an advance copy, writing that 
‘All I have seen of it awes me’, commenting that it is ‘just as noble a conception of Deity, to believe that He created primal forms capable of to believe that He required a fresh act of intervention to supply the lacunas [gaps] which He Himself had made’.
Since 1859 most Christians have been equally happy to incorporate evolution within their biblical understanding of creation. Yes there was some opposition at the beginning, as there is for any radically new theory, but the most influential church leaders soon realized that Kingsley was right. The idea that evolution was greeted with general horror by the Church is a myth.

David Burges critiques evolutionary creationism in The Testimony - 5

Burges' attempt to rebut the genomic evidence confirming the reality of common descent  highlights the ignorance of the subject that is all too common among Christadelphian evolution denialists. His rebuttal of 'theistic evolution' using his interpretation of the Bible is no better as it betrays more an attempt to force the Bible to fit a pre-determined conclusion rather than an objective attempt to understand what the writers in their context were trying to say. Furthermore, it ignores the fact that early Christadelphian views on this subject were hardly uniform, and changed more for political than for exegetical reasons.

Friday, 13 June 2014

David Burges critiques evolutionary creationism in The Testimony - 4

How does Burges attempt to deal with the overwhelming evidence from comparative anatomy, developmental biology, comparative genomics, biogeography, and palaeontology that confirms the reality of common descent? In short, he ignores it, or tries the long-rebutted "common design" argument. Worse still is when Burges attempts to blame some of the genomic errors on the Fall, which immediately raises the question of why God cursed humans, apes, and monkeys with exactly the right pattern of pseudogenes, retrotransposons, and ERV elements as to simulate common descent. Finally, Burges even resorts to the claim that God deliberately created the evidence for evolution in order to deceive people:

"…these features of DNA look like common descent, and therefore must evidence it, because otherwise God would be deceiving us. But while He is certainly "the God of truth"… it is also true that, for those who have turned from Him, He can send strong delusion that they should believe a lie…It is those who absolutely trust His Word who will not be deceived." [1]

This last argument takes 2 Thessalonians 2:11 completely out of context; this reference has absolutely nothing to do with evolutionary biology. 

It is also an admission of defeat as it concedes that the evidence for common descent is overwhelming, but seeks to nullify the power of that evidence by assuming without any evidence that God has deliberately written a superfluous lie into creation across multiple areas, ranging from a faked biogeographical distribution of species, through to a faked fossil record complete with innumerable transitional fossils, to a faked genome complete with multiple shared genomic glitches; not just retrotransposons, ERVs, and pseudogenes, butshared faked evidence of DNA repair - non-homologous end joining. 

Finally, Burges endorses fideism by declaring that "it is those who absolutely trust His Word who will not be deceived" which is simply a fundamentalist Christadelphian analog of the AiG statement of faith that declares:
By definition, no apparent, perceived or claimed evidence in any field, including history and chronology, can be valid if it contradicts the scriptural record. Of primary importance is the fact that evidence is always subject to interpretation by fallible people who do not possess all information.
against all evidence to the contrary. This shows just how far our community has strayed since its early days where our pioneers engaged the evidence on its merits, rather than hide from it in terror. Of course, what Burges and those of his ilk forget is that Biblical evidence is always subject to interpretation by fallible people. Egregious as his scientific errors are, it is his flawed exegesis that is ultimately the greater problem.

Thursday, 12 June 2014

David Burges critiques evolutionary creationism in The Testimony - 3

The frequency with which I emphasise both the difference between evolution as fact (common descent) and evolution as theory (the modern evolutionary synthesis) and the fact that problems real or imagined with the modern evolutionary synthesis do not mean that common descent is false or that special creationism magically becomes real reflects the amount of times these elementary mistakes are made by special creationists. Burges alas is no different, failing both to grasp the difference between evolution as fact and evolution as theory, as well as peddling demonstrably false claims that it is 'mathematically impossible' for evolution to occur. 

Given that an evolutionary natural history has not been in doubt for well over a century, the burden of proof lies solely on Burges and other science denialists to show that the evidence for common descent is better explained by special creation, and given that the evidence for common descent is spread across multiple scientific disciplines ranging from biogeography to comparative genomics to palaeontology, that demands more than a few lines from secondary sources. Burges needs to demonstrate both familiarity with the primary literature, as well as evidence that he has discussed his antievolution arguments with a considerable number of eminent professionals.

This he has not done. Unsurprisingly, Burges does not make his claim exclusively from the primary literature, but credits an obscure special creationist technician with a background in molecular biology for advice [1], citing an extremist YEC website TrueOrigins (about as credible a source on evolution as Jack Chick's tracts are on soteriology) as well as leaning uncritically on arguments from ID apologist Michael Behe and the philosopher/mathematician John Lennox.

Understanding creationism: An insider’s guide by a former young-Earth creationist - 3

Part 3 of David MacMillan's series on how YECs misunderstand evolution is up at Panda's Thumb. This time, he addresses how YECs forget that evolution does not proceed in a straight line from parent to child to grandchild, and so on down a single lineage, but rather a branching process taking place in a population:
Evolutionary adaptation, however, does not happen in a straight line from parent to child. Rather, adaptation takes place throughout a population as different genetic sequences spread outward from parents to all their offspring and are recombined and reshuffled in many different individuals each successive generation. Evolution is wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey stuff. It is the combination of changing genetic material across an entire population that makes major evolutionary adaptation possible; without this constant mixing and recombination from the entire population, evolution would grind almost to a halt. Evolution is a phenomenon that functions not at the level of the individual, nor at the level of individual lineages, but across the entire population within the species (Figure 1).

Figure 1. This hypothetical example depicts evolutionary change as an emergent property of the entire population. Both the “ABC” combinations (in shades of blue) and the “XYZ” combinations (in shades of red) offer a survival advantage and are passed on, while combinations of the two (shown in shades of purple) are detrimental and are removed from the population. No specific mutation order is required; as long as the selection pressure remains steady, the mutations accumulate together (essentially “finding” each other) and two separate genotypes emerge. 
Unfortunately, depictions of evolution often show individual specimens arranged linearly in ascending order: apes to humans, theropods to birds, and the like (Figure 2). Such representations make it easy to miss the population aspect. Even an accurately depicted branching tree of evolution can still be misunderstood to represent individuals rather than whole populations. 
Figure 2. In this common but mistaken depiction of evolution typically adopted by creationists, individual changes occur in simple sequence within a single lineage. With this view, it is easy to wrongly assume that individual mutations must occur one after another in a specific order, something that seems intuitively improbable.
When special creationists talk about the 'impossibility' of blind chance alone being responsible for the evolution of a particular protein, they are betraying complete ignorance of the reality of evolution, and that alone is enough to render their objections irrelevant.

The full article can be found here.

Tuesday, 10 June 2014

David Burges critiques evolutionary creationism in The Testimony - 2

Despite the assertions of fundamentalists such as David Burges that evolution is false, as respected evolutionary biologist Douglas Futuyma points out, common descent has long been accepted as a fact because the evidence for it is overwhelming:
Like the heliocentric hypothesis of Copernicus, the hypothesis of descent with modification from common ancestors has long held the status of a scientific fact. No biologist today would think of publishing a paper on "new evidence for evolution," any more than a chemist would try to publish a demonstration that water is composed of hydrogen and oxygen. It simply hasn't been an issue in scientific circles for more than a century. [1]
A common blunder made by evolution denialists is in failing to define evolution. Burges makes a token effort to do this, but fails miserably. As TR Gregory [2] and others [3-4] have pointed out, evolution refers at the very least to fact (common descent) and theory (the modern evolutionary synthesis). Special creationists who claim that difficulties - real or (most likely) imagined - with the modern synthetic theory mean that common descent has been vanquished demonstrate their ignorance of evolutionary biology. Even if the MES was falsified tomorrow, its successor theory would need both to explain everything that the MES did, as well as the phenomena that the MES could not.

This confusion between evolution as fact and evolution as theory has been exploited by special creationists such as the Discovery Institute which maintains a list of scientists who 'dissent from Darwin.' Such lists look impressive to the laypeople, but given that there are hundreds of thousands of life and earth scientists in the USA alone, a list of a few hundred people isn't even close to 0.1% of the total number of geologists and biologists in the USA, let alone the world.

Monday, 9 June 2014

David Burges critiques evolutionary creationism in The Testimony - 1

The increasing number of overtly anti-evolution articles in The Testimony [1] in the last year suggests that the magazine committee is aware that an increasing number of believers have accepted the fact of evolution, and is now engaged in a desperate rearguard effort to try to reverse this trend. The fact that these articles betray an appalling ignorance of the subject merely confirms that they are simply out of their depth on this subject, and have no credible means of defending their anti-evolution position. The latest attack comes from David Burges, whose April 2014 article [2] attempts to show that 'theistic evolution' is incompatible with Biblical faith. His attack merely confirms his gross ignorance of evolutionary biology, grossly misrepresents how Christadelphian evolutionary creationists read the Bible, and shows a flawed grasp of Paul's teaching on Adam. 

Friday, 6 June 2014

The Bible is not a science textbook

Science, as I noted earlier, is the search for natural causes for natural phenomena. That's it. As a way to understand the natural world, and improve the quality of our lives, it has been extraordinarily successful. It has also confirmed beyond all doubt both the great antiquity of the Earth, and the evolutionary origin of life. As special creationism has been comprehensively demolished as a coherent scientific explanation of origins, it is hardly surprising that YECs, desperate to salvage their dogma, have tried to deny the legitimacy of science by criticising it for excluding supernatural causes. That science a priori is simply incapable of commenting on the the supernatural means that such criticisms not only are ridiculous, but betray a complete and fundamental ignorance of the basics of scientific epistemology.

Thursday, 5 June 2014

Understanding creationism: An insider’s guide by a former young-Earth creationist - 2

Part 2 of former YEC David MacMillan's insight into the mental tricks YECs use to explain away the evidence for evolution has been posted at the Panda's Thumb blog. MacMillan looks at variation and adaptation, noting that YECs, in arguing that only a handful of 'kinds' managed to diversify after the flood into the millions of species we see today, very much accept speciation:
So creationists most certainly accept the existence of biological variation and speciation. Creationists call this rapid diversification from “kinds” down to modern species “microevolution.” However, the mechanism they propose as the basis of “microevolution” differs broadly from the mechanism accepted and taught as part of the theory of evolution.
The creationist model claims that the variation provided by Mendelian inheritance and genetic loss – this “microevolution” mechanism – is responsible for all the variation we ever observe in nature. They claim that this observed level of variation is sufficient for the diversification of the 10,000 kinds represented on the Ark, but – they claim – not sufficient to produce the new genetic information needed to produce all life from a single common ancestor (what they term “macroevolution”). By erroneously supposing that Mendelian recombination is the exclusive source of genetic variation, they neatly exclude any viable mechanism for universal common descent. 
Correcting this misconception can be difficult. It is not enough to explain that macroevolution is the accumulation of microevolution over time, because creationists define these as two distinctly different processes. They actually are correct in arguing that their “microevolution” could never accumulate into “macroevolution” because their definition of “microevolution” is much more limited than we see in reality. They must be made to understand that the genetic variation we actually observe on a daily basis is fundamentally different than what their “microevolution” allows for. (Emphasis in original)
Part 2 can be found here.

Monday, 2 June 2014

There's no such thing as 'atheistic' science. It's just science

Physical anthropologist and evangelical Christian James Kidder has commented on former YEC James MacMillan's ongoing series of posts at Panda's Thumb detailing how YECs intellectually wave away the evidence for evolution. Kidder's comment is worth noting, as it mirrors the deeply flawed thinking of the evolution denialists in our community who seem to think that science is intrinsically anti-theistic:
Scientific research does not and cannot convey truth. It is just science, no more and no less. As someone recently wrote in the comments on this post: 
When I do math and I don’t pray or think about God, it’s not atheistic math, it’s just math. When I drive and am not thinking about God, it’s not secular driving, it’s just driving. And when I go into the lab and I’m thinking about the lab experiment and not theological issues, its not agnostic science, it’s just science. Adding an adjective implies some sort of intentional avoidance of theism or purposeful distance from theism, when the real truth of the matter is that nobody is avoiding anything, they are just focused on their jobs/hobbies/whatever.

Amen. Ham and like-minded creationists are adding an ontological layer onto the practice of evolutionary biology that does not exist.  If you simply study the fossil record and modern genomics, the evidence for evolution is enormous.  Calling it a “secular religion” won’t make that go away.
Whether this sentiment is expressed with the crude slogan 'the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God', or the slick sophistry of the person who asserts that that "there is a philosophical layer embedded in popular evolution writing...the philosophy of naturalism" [1] it still betrays a complete misunderstanding of scientific epistemology. Science is the search for natural causes for natural phenomena. That's all. As Kidder says, demonising evolution as a 'secular religion', or inventing imaginary philosophical layers in science writing in order to unleash wave after wave of faux-philosophical ramblings in order to wave away evolution won't make the fact of common descent and large-scale evolutionary change go away.


1. Perry A "The creation versus evolution debate" The Testimony (2014) 84:69-72