Tuesday, 10 February 2015

Bruce Gurd misrepresents evolutionary creationism

Recently, Christadelphian fundamentalist brother Bruce Gurd lectured the Cumberland ecclesia on the subject of evolutionary creationism. Unfortunately, his lecture grossly misrepresented evolutionary creationism (despite him consulting someone who told him his presentation was a misrepresentation of the EC view). Additionally, it advanced views at variance with traditional Christadelphian positions.

Bruce's main target was the Facebook discussion group 'Christadelphian - Origins Discussion', abbreviated as COD in the rest of this post. The following comparison demonstrates that brother Bruce's claims about what Christadelphians believe are actually contrary to what Christadelphians have both believed and taught.

Tracing the advance of fundamentalism in our community (and a strangely familiar name)

In an earlier post, I noted how the execrable book The Genesis Flood was given a positive review, despite the fact that contemporary geologists had savaged its geological arguments. Prior to that, YEC and flood geology were practically unknown in our community. By 1971, evangelical pseudoscience was being openly promoted by the CMPA.

If we look at the letters to the editor between 1962 and 1971, we can see some disturbing signs of fundamentalism. This letter highlights this problem in painful detail:

Dear bro. Sargent,
Fraternal Greetings. 
I am increasingly perplexed at the prominence which is being given to the writings of so-called scholars and authorities, at the recommendation of books of reference (such as the one in the September issue on The Book of the Law), and the apparent deference shown in the magazine to the need to meet and satisfy on other grounds than Scripture the views and opinions of science. When I seek to the Bible and ask the question: “What does God do to cater for these points of view?” I am met with complete silence. There seems to be a studied carefulness about the Word which avoids catering for meeting human wisdom and its problems connected with faith in God. And not only so, but the Bible seems to make a special point of presenting its facts and evidence (such evidence as it chooses to give) in a manner most calculated to try human sagacity and credulity to its limits. As evidence the first three chapters of the Bible. 
Surely the very fact that God has not thought fit to cater for these views and opinions (and He well knew that they would arise) should be our guide. If in His judgment the evidence of the creation and its variety and regularity are all-sufficient, as He states through Paul in Romans 1 : 19–20, so that that very fact alone leaves men “without excuse”, are we to suppose that He requires us to make up the deficiency, and in effect imply that time and change have found His methods wanting? The Gospel is “the power of God unto salvation”, as Paul truly affirms. God has calculated in His way the best means of producing faith in men, and it is in the terms of the Bible, with all its apparent difficulties, that in His judgment, this purpose can best be achieved. The “foolishness of preaching” refers not to the manner but to the things preached, and I would say now with absolute conviction that were we more versed in the Word, were it more our meat and drink, were we more prepared to allow the simple presentation of the Word to work its own ends, then “it would prosper in the things whereto he sent it” . . . 
The way to God, and to be well-pleasing to Him lies in “believing that he is, and that he is a rewarder of those who diligently seek him”. I scarcely think that to establish that faith on the wisdom of this world, or even to supplement that faith with it, will present a man in right standing with his Creator . . . 
That Jesus should disdain the wisdom of this world in his preaching we may accept. “He spoke as one having authority.” But when Paul tells us his preaching was “not with enticing words of man’s wisdom” we may have cause to think again. When Peter tells us “If any man speak, let him speak as the oracles of God”, it is in the context of the Faith being assailed. And the advice of Jude is: “But ye, beloved, building up yourselves on your most holy faith, praying in the holy spirit . . .” 
If there is any cause for alarm or concern amongst us it lies solely in this fact that we have ceased to read the Bible as regularly and prayerfully as we should. This is the complete answer to our problem, and one which those responsible for the welfare of ecclesias would do well to promote to the utmost of their ability. - D Bedson. The Christadelphian (1964) 101:510 (Emphasis mine)
Enough said.

Correcting special creationist misunderstanding of the word 'hominid'

Recently, I've heard some special creationists railing against evolutionary creationists who apparently believe that "Cain married a hominid." This assertion reflects a failure to understand what hominid means:

Saturday, 7 February 2015

When did our community become infected with YEC and fundamentalism?

Putting an exact time on when our community's original belief in an old earth and a local flood gave way to young earth creationism and flood geology is of course impossible given that there was never an abrupt transition from one view to the other. However, given that the evangelical Christian world was also largely old earth creationist [1] prior to the publication of John Whitcomb and Henry Morris' The Genesis Flood, it is reasonable to see how our community responded to this book, and see whether it was positively or negatively reviewed. Given the massive influence The Genesis Flood had in catalysing a shift towards YEC / flood geology in the Evangelical world, and the fact that YEC and a flood geology were not part of our community's intellectual heritage, it is not unreasonable to conclude that a positive review of this book may well have precipitated the disastrous charge towards YEC.

Unfortunately, this book was positively reviewed in the November 1962 edition of The Christadelphian by A.D. Norris, who ironically was an OEC. [2] Norris's largely uncritical review concluded:
The book does not claim to be an exhaustive review of the subject: still less can this notice claim to be an exhaustive review of the book. But the book does present a very diligently developed case for its catastrophism which is well worth the respect of careful reading; and this notice has tried to do justice to its adventurous approach and its thorough scripturality of outlook. It is certainly not written by men who bury their heads in the sands and ignore the findings and opinions of contemporary scientists, and it reveals by its frequent quotations from friend and foe a quite remarkable acquaintance with what can be said both for and against the opinions expressed. 
For those with just a little scientific background the book is well worth the time and labour which reading it will involve, whatever opinions on the views expressed may ultimately emerge. And brethren and sisters will do well to think as respectfully and as informedly of the written Word as these men do. [3]

What happens when a layperson tried to dismiss a robust consensus view (and a primer on the age of the Earth)

My previous two points provided an example of how even internationally regarded scholars can blunder badly when they stray outside of their sphere of competence. Needless to say, when a layperson with zero professional training, expertise, or experience in a technical discipline declares that the entire discipline is fraudulent or not 'true science', no one outside of the echo chamber of those who agree with that person's assertions on ideological grounds will take his assertions seriously.

Unfortunately, this problem is endemic in our community, where laypeople without any scientific training at all will nonetheless claim that robust, long-standing positions in the scientific community on the age of the Earth, or common descent are false. The burden of proof lies solely on the person making such a novel claim, and personal opinion leavened with a few claims taken uncritically from special creationist websites, and advanced on an internet forum hardly counts as a definitive refutation. As vertebrate palaeontologist Per Ahlberg put it when responding to a special creationist:
OK, fine, if that's what you think, why don't you marshal your arguments into a paper and submit it to a scientific journal? I'm serious: the Intertubes is all very well for discussing ideas in a general way, but if you have a real scientific point to make you need to get it out in the form of a proper paper in a peer-reviewed journal. Otherwise it won't be taken seriously.
One searches the professional peer reviewed literature in vain for papers published by Christadelphian special creationists that have made a "real scientific point" and have been able to gain considerable scientific support for their view that the Earth is 6000 years old and common descent false. Given this, it is quite reasonable, as Ahlberg would put it, not to take such Christadelphian YEC claims seriously as they are not even wrong.

Thursday, 5 February 2015

What happens when an expert argues outside his area of competence

In my previous post, I showed what happens when an expert strays outside of his sphere of expertise and makes claims that run counter to the scholarly consensus. William Lane Craig, in attempting to argue for monogenism, had his arguments neatly dissected by respected evolutionary biologist and geneticist Jerry Coyne. However, Coyne has made the same mistake Craig made by flirting with the fringe view that Jesus of Nazareth never existed. Jesus mythicism, as more than one person has said, is to history what YEC is to science, and Coyne's failure to respect genuine scholarly consensus on this issue shows that the class of errors made by theists such as Craig are also made by non-theists. It is an object lesson in the need to pay diligent attention to robust scholarly consensus views and not offer minority views outside one's area of expertise.

Wednesday, 4 February 2015

What happens when an expert argues within his area of competence

Anyone who has spent some time wading through special creationist propaganda will have encountered the appeal to authority, where the author will tout his irrelevant credentials before proceeding to peddle yet another special creationist error. Too often, laypeople think that being an expert in one area of science somehow grants the scientists insight into other scientific areas. That's false. Outside of their area of expertise, a scientist's opinion is no more authoritative than any other educated layperson.

Special creationists are dimly aware of this, and have attempted to counter this by attacking defenders of mainstream science who cite scientific articles by evolutionary biologists for appealing to authority. What the special creationists ignore is that it is entirely relevant to appeal to relevant authority. If you were arguing with a germ theory denialists, it is entirely relevant to cite the relevant microbiology literature as their professional opinion is directly relevant to the subject.

Evolutionary geneticist Jerry Coyne provides two examples of what happens when a professional argues within his area of competence, and when he argues outside of it. The examples should serve to show special creationists the difference between an appeal to relevant authority, and a fallacious appeal to authority.

Human / chimpanzee common ancestry - the current fossil evidence - Part 3

Ardipithecus ramidus

The first Ardipithecus ramidus fossils were found in 1992-1993 in the Middle Awash valley in Ethiopia, with further fragments unearthed in 1994. It was formally named later year. Further research in the early years of this century unearthed further evidence. Last year, after some years of extensive research, 11 papers were published in science detailing the results of that field work and subsequent analyis.

Now, before I go on any further, I need to point out that Ardipithecus ramidus is not the common ancestor since it is too young based on the currently accepted time for the divergence of the lines leading to the Homo and Pan lineages based on molecular studies. It however is still a significant find:
This remarkably rare skeleton is not the oldest putative hominin, but it is by far the most complete of the earliest specimens. It includes most of the skull and teeth, as well as the pelvis, hands, and feet—parts that the authors say reveal an "intermediate" form of upright walking, considered a hallmark of hominins. "We thought Lucy was the find of the century but, in retrospect, it isn't," says paleoanthropologist Andrew Hill of Yale University. "It's worth the wait."

To some researchers' surprise, the female skeleton doesn't look much like a chimpanzee, gorilla, or any of our closest living primate relatives. Even though this species probably lived soon after the dawn of humankind, it was not transitional between African apes and humans. "We have seen the ancestor, and it is not a chimpanzee," says paleoanthropologist Tim White of the University of California, Berkeley, co-director of the Middle Awash research group, which discovered and analyzed the fossils.

Instead, the skeleton and pieces of at least 35 additional individuals of Ar. ramidus reveal a new type of early hominin that was neither chimpanzee nor human. Although the team suspects that Ar. ramidus may have given rise to Lucy's genus, Australopithecus, the fossils "show for the first time that there is some new evolutionary grade of hominid that is not Australopithecus, that is not Homo," says paleontologist Michel Brunet of the College de France in Paris. [1]

Tuesday, 3 February 2015

Scratch an atheist leader and you'll find a sexist. Surely not?

What would you think if a leading scientist asserted:
“I think it may have to do with my personal slant as an author, being very critical of bad ideas. This can sound very angry to people..People just don’t like to have their ideas criticized. There’s something about that critical posture that is to some degree instrinsically male and more attractive to guys than to women,” he said. “The scientist variable just has this – it doesn’t obviously have this nurturing, coherence-building extra estrogen vibe that you would want by default if you wanted to attract as many women as men.”
Given that engineering, and the physical sciences have traditionally been male-dominated, if you were a woman doing her best to reverse this problem, comments such as this would be the last thing you'd want to hear.

The quote is from a scientist, but I have altered one word. It's from Sam Harris, who actually said:
“I think it may have to do with my personal slant as an author, being very critical of bad ideas. This can sound very angry to people..People just don’t like to have their ideas criticized. There’s something about that critical posture that is to some degree instrinsically male and more attractive to guys than to women,” he said. “The atheist variable just has this – it doesn’t obviously have this nurturing, coherence-building extra estrogen vibe that you would want by default if you wanted to attract as many women as men.”
 Harris may not be a leading scientist, but he enjoys no little prestige as an unofficial leader of movement atheism, and together with the late Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, have alienated a considerable number of atheist women. As feminist writer Amanda Marcotte notes:
Also, the reason a lot of women hated Hitchens is Hitchens thought we were inferior by dint of biology. I find that offensive whether you say it gently or say it acerbically. It’s the content, not the tone.
 This, I must point out, is not a tu quoque rebuttal of atheism - any attempt to justify sexist behaviour by appeal to religion deserves to be condemned, and any criticism of atheism should not be predicated on the moral failing of its unofficial leaders. However, it should serve as a sober reminder that simply ceasing to believe in deities does not automatically turn you into a better class of person. Sometimes, all it does is create a sexist who also happens not to believe in God. Marcotte put it well in her conclusion to a recent Salon article on atheism and sexism:
If atheists believed in the afterlife, they would have to assume that Simone de Beauvoir and Elizabeth Cady Stanton are looking down upon us in horror, wondering how the good name of atheism has been so poisoned by rampant sexism. But since they are no longer around to judge us, it’s up to living atheists to strive to be more than a bunch of people who simply don’t believe in God, but stand up to irrationality in all its forms, including sexism.
I remain pessimistic about their chances of solving this problem.

Human / chimpanzee common ancestry - the current fossil evidence - Part 2

Sahelanthropus tchadensis

Sahelanthropus tchadensis is a late Miocene possible hominin located in the deserts of Chad in 2002 and has been dated to around seven million years ago. The date alone puts it on the early side of the possible time of the common ancestor as determined by genetic studies. It is fair to say that there is no firm consensus about whether it predates the Homo / Pan divergence, post-dates the divergence and is on the Homo side of the divergence, or may even be one of the earliest fossil non-human apes. Whatever it is, (remembering the analogy of trying to work out what your grandfather looked like by looking at photographs of his cousins, siblings and uncles) it is a valuable find.

The paper announcing its discovery states that:
Sahelanthropus has several derived hominid features, including small, apically worn canines—which indicate a probable non-honing C–P3 complex—and intermediate postcanine enamel thickness. Several aspects of the basicranium (length, horizontal orientation, anterior position of the foramen magnum) and face (markedly reduced subnasal prognathism with no canine diastema, large continuous supraorbital torus) are similar to later hominids including Kenyanthropus and Homo. All these anatomical features indicate that Sahelanthropus belongs to the hominid clade.

In many other respects, however, Sahelanthropus exhibits a suite of primitive features including small brain size, a truncated triangular basioccipital bone, and the petrous portion of the temporal bone oriented 60° to the bicarotid chord. The observed mosaic of primitive and derived characters evident in Sahelanthropus indicates its phylogenetic position as a hominid close to the last common ancestor of humans and chimpanzees. [1]
The fossil remains are shown below:

Monday, 2 February 2015

Human / chimpanzee common ancestry - the current fossil evidence - Part 1

Christadelphian attacks [1] on the evidence for human evolution are hopelessly dated, relying in general on such special creationist staples as Nebraska Man, Piltdown man and other long-rebutted [2] assertions. Another is the claim that the amount of hominid fossils could barely fit on a billiard table, a claim which betrays considerable ignorance of the subject of human evolution:
Opponents of scientific biology are fond of dismissing that record as a pathetic handful of controversial fragments. If that were so, this book would be a lot shorter. An often-repeated creationist canard insists that all known human fossils would fit on a billiard table. This was probably true in the late 19th century but it has not been true for a hundred years. Known human fossils number in the thousands and represent the remains of hundreds of individuals. They are more numerous and better-studied than the fossils of any comparable vertebrate group, because the intense interest that people have in the bones of their ancestors has driven them to devote far more effort to collecting and studying fossil humans than (say) fossil horses or herring. Having seen most of the major collections of human fossils in the world’s museums, we can assure our readers that those collections can no longer be laid out on a billiard table. It would be hard to cram them all into a boxcar. [3]
The biggest misunderstanding however concerns the search for the 'missing link', a phrase which betrays a complete misunderstanding of how evolutionary biologists think. When special creationists refer to a 'missing link', they are thinking in terms of evolution as a ladder, with humans at the top, and 'lower animals' below. That is false. Rather, they should be thinking in terms of a tree:


Sunday, 1 February 2015

The original Christadelphian position on inspiration - not as fundamentalist as you would think.

Fundamentalists in our community who think a dictation theory of inspiration which makes no concession to the cultural context of the human author is the original Christadelphian position would do well to look at what some of the leading figures in our community actually believed. Hint: it wasn't a dictation theory of inspiration. Christadelphians in our community who peddle an extreme dictation theory are advancing something which not only cannot be reconciled with the Biblical text (synoptic problem, anyone?) but which deviates from the eminently sensible view that many in our community once held:
"The Bible does not speak in the literal and strictly scientific language of the nineteenth century, but in the language of the day in which it was written (although it frequently anticipates the discoveries of modern science and uses word in harmony therewith). Any other style of writing would have failed to give information to those reading it." [1] 
"Moses’ testimony was given to Israel in what might be called the infancy of the world, when men did not know the extent of the earth, let alone that of the sun, moon, and stars. And, as we believe, it was given (by God through Moses), not so much to instruct Israel in cosmogony in detail, as to impress upon them the idea that The Most High God is the Possessor of Heaven and Earth (Gen. 14:22). And this against the claims of the gods of the nations, as was abundantly proved in Israel’s history."

1. D. Clement, quoted with approval by Robert Roberts in "The Creative Order—Mosaic and Geological". The Christadelphian (1884) 21:176
2. Walker C.C. ‘Is it wrong to believe that the earth is a sphere?", The Christadelphian (1913) 50:348