Wednesday, 10 June 2015

Setting the next generation up for failure - the Hall Green Young People's Creation Day 2015

In James 3:1, the writer reminded his audience that those who who teach will be judged with greater strictness, something that makes sense when one considers the responsibility that a teacher has to ensure what she or he has to say is accurate. This becomes even more important when one teaches young people, for obvious reasons. It is bad enough seeing fundamentalism and science denialism being served up in The Christadelphian, but when a younger generation is fed science denialism, as was the case when the Hall Green ecclesia in Birmingham presented their Young People's Creation Day recently, it is hard not to get deeply concerned at the potential for harm that exists when pseudoscience is inextricably linked with our faith. As the former YEC Gordon Hudson (someone who once promoted the early UK tours of the YEC extremist Ken Ham) noted in a blog post:
My own faith was shipwrecked by this issue because I had been told time and again that belief in a young earth and creation of the species as they currently are without evolution was essential to being a proper, soundly converted, bible believing Christian. When I started to doubt creationism I also began to question all the other things I had been told about God. I felt lied to, and ultimately I found I no longer believed in God.
By inculcating science denialism in a young generation, we are setting them up for a loss of faith when they eventually read outside our community and discover that everything they were taught about evolution and creation was false. It is hard not to get infuriated when one sees such reckless, counter-productive behaviour by senior people in our community.

The presenter was David Burges, science editor of The Testimony, who began with a discussion on "God the Creator" which made the classic special creationist error of assuming every reference to creation automatically referred to special creation. In other words, Burges conflated a theology of creation with a science of creation.
Brother David showed that the topic of creation was referred to throughout the Bible, and was not just confined to the opening chapters of Genesis...The subject of God’s creation, quite literally, runs from Genesis right through to Revelation!
Unsurprisingly, one would expect to see the theology of creation as a central theme in the Bible, but to infer from this that the Bible - originally written for a pre-sceintific audience - is going to comment about the mechanism of creation is to commit the exegetical sin of eisegesis, reading things into the Scripture that are not there. 

I've mentioned on numerous occasions that this special creationist conflation of the theology of creation with the mechanism of creation ignores the principle of Divine agency, and how secondary causes are used by God while ultimate causation is ascribed to him. Furthermore, it highlights the stark inconsistency of special creationists who are happy to accept scientific explanations for the weather, physiology, and foetal formation, despite the fact that the Bible is just as emphatic in declaring that they are just as much the work of God as the creation of life:
  • Jer 1:5 Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I have appointed you a prophet to the nations. 
  • Psa 139:13 For You formed my inward parts; You wove me in my mother's womb. 
  • Job 10:10-11 Did You not pour me out like milk and curdle me like cheese; clothe me with skin and flesh, and knit me together with bones and sinews? 
  • Job 31:15 Did not He who made me in the womb make him, and the same one fashion us in the womb? 
  • Isa 44:2 Thus says the Lord who made you and formed you from the womb, who will help you
  • Isa 44:24 Thus says the Lord, your Redeemer, and the one who formed you from the womb, “I, the Lord, am the maker of all things, stretching out the heavens by myself and spreading out the earth all alone."
This inconsistency is perfectly highlighted in the last verse, where God declares that he both forms people in the womb and creates the universe. Special creationists accept the science of developmental biology, yet deny evolutionary biology, despite the fact that evolutionary biology is one of the best attested branches of science.

The errors continued in his second talk "God - the source of all life" in which Burges made yet another classic  special creationist mistake, this time in conflating abiogenesis - the study of how life emerged from prebiotic precursors - with evolutionary biology, the study both of the natural evolutionary history of life, and how common descent and large-scale evolutionary change took place:
Even today, those scientists who promote the idea of evolution cannot explain how life was created in the first place. Reference was made to a well-known scientist, Professor Stuart Kauffman (theoretical biologist who studies the origin of life), who admitted, “Anyone who tells you that he or she knows how life started on earth … is a fool. Nobody knows.”
Steven Whitehouse, the author of the report on the Hall Green creation day neglects to provide a reference for the source, which comes from Kauffman's nearly twenty year old book At Home in the Universe. [2] One wonders whether Burges had bothered to look at anything more recent, or - given the ellipses in the quote - whether he had even read the book, or merely taken the quote from a creationist quote mine. When one looks at the full context, a slightly different meaning emerges:
Anyone who tells you that he or she knows how life started on the sere earth some 3.45 billion years ago is a fool or a knave. Nobody knows. Indeed, we may never recover the actual historical sequence of molecular events that led to the first self-reproducing, evolving molecular systems to flower forth more than 3 million millennia ago. But if the historical pathway should forever remain hidden, we can still develop bodies of theory and experiment to show how life might realistically have crystallized, rooted, then covered our globe. Yet the caveat: nobody knows. [3] (Emphasis mine)
Kauffman's scientific honesty compels him to point out that if the "historical pathway" followed by prebiotic precursors to life remains cryptic, then no one will know the exact details of that pathway. This however does not mean that we will never be able to construct realistic models of abiogenesis, something that Kauffman spends some time outlining in his book. Curiously, Burges neglects to mention both this, and Kauffman's rebuttal of  infamous claim by Hoyle and Wickramasinghe that the odds of a single enzyme forming by chance were 1 in 10^4000:

The problem, I believe, is that Hoyle, Wickramasinghe, and many others have failed to appreciate the power of self-organization. It is not necessary that a specific set of 2,000 enzymes be assembled, one by one, to carry out a specific set of reactions...there are compelling reasons to believe that whenever a collection of chemicals contains enough different kinds of molecules, a metabolism will crystallize from the broth. If this argument is correct, metabolic networks need not be built one component at a time; they can spring full-grown from a primordial soup. [4]
Citing Kauffman's claim out of context, while failing to point out the considerable work he, and other origin of life researchers have done in refining origin of life hypotheses is misleading at best. This does not mean that we have solved the problem of how live appeared from prebiotic origins. We do not have a robust theory at the moment (though research certainly has progressed considerably since the 'primordial soup' days), which is why honest scientists such as Kauffman point out that no one knows, which is not the same thing as no one will ever know, or that we know nothing about hbow it could have happened. Such honesty however is too often abused by evolution denialists.

This uncertainty about the exact mechanism by which life emerged does not mean that common descent and large scale evolutionary change are false, or that we have no ideas about the theoretical mechanism responsible for descent with modification. As cell biologist and Christian Kenneth Miller points out:
I don't think there are basic “gaps” in the theory of evolution, which has proven to be a remarkably flexible scientific framework, brilliantly accommodating new data and even new fields of science, like molecular genetics. However, the most profound unsolved problem in biology is the origin of life itself. We know a great deal about the creative chemistry of the early Earth, but not yet enough to solve this problem. [5] (Emphasis mine)
Miller's recognition that abiogenesis remains a major unsolved problem, while simultaneously pointing out that evolutionary biology has no major gaps and is a brilliant theory highlights why claims made by denialists such as Burges are so misleading - they conflate two separate areas of science, and ignore that one of them is one of the best-attested theories in modern science. Therefore, claims such as:
This is the missing piece of the puzzle of evolution, ‘How did life begin?’ It is a crucial piece too; how can anyone believe in evolution if there is no explanation as to how life began in the first place?
demonstrate both Burges profound ignorance both of the overwhelming evidence for common descent (evolution as fact) and the modern synthetic theory of evolution (evolution as theory), as well as ignorance of the relationship between facts, and the theories proposed to explain them. The often-used example of gravity illustrates this perfectly. Gravitational lensing, planetary motion, and gravitational attraction are facts, yet the currently accepted scientific theory of gravity, general relativity, has major problems in that it is incompatible with quantum theory; we do not have a theory of quantum gravity. Furthermore, we have yet to unify all four forced - strong, weak, electromagnetic, and nuclear,  to provide a theory of everything Yet this major deficit in the current theory of gravity does not mean that the phenomena it explains magically vanish. Anyone who argued that:
This is the missing piece of the puzzle of gravity, ‘How can we explain it at the quantum level?’ It is a crucial piece too; how can anyone believe in gravity if there is no explanation as to how it began in the first place?
The gaping flaws in Burges' argument are painfully obvious.

From conflating evolutionary biology with abiogenesis, Burges moved onto another special creationist error, the argument from design:
Brother David showed many remarkable things about the human body and they all screamed out, ‘Intelligent Design!’ For instance, we briefly looked at human insulin and its two polypeptide chains, the structure of the haemoglobin and the DNA ‘double helix’.
Burges however neglected to point out that selection acting on mutation is more than capable of producing complex design, as the field of evolutionary computation shows, where evolutionary algorithms are capable of achieving design that in many ways surpasses that by intelligent agents such as humans. Design does not necessarily imply an intelligent designer.

However, while evolution is capable in principle of achieving elegant design, the fact that ultimately things are selected for survival rather than elegance, coupled with historical constraint, where evolution tinkers with existing design rather than building from scratch with each generation means that sub-optimal design is inevitable, something which one would not expect if everything was designed from scratch by an omnipotent, omniscient designer. I've mentioned many times how the abundant examples of flawed design in the human body are difficult at best to reconcile with an intelligent designer. Once again:
  • Inverted retina design with light sensing cells pointing away from the light creates a blind spot where nerves and blood vessels leave the eye,  as well as predisposes humans to visual loss from retinal detachment, diabetic retinopathy, retinal haemorrhage, and macular degeneration. As neurologist Steve Novella points out  All of this could have been avoided or minimized were the rods and cones placed in the most superficial layer of the retinal, rather than buried at the bottom.” [6]
  • Routing the urethra through the prostate, which given that it is prone to enlargement means that there is a high risk of impaired urine flow or urinary obstruction
  • High risk of inguinal hernias due to a weakened abdominal wall as a result of the passage of the testicles during foetal development from an internal position to their position in the scrotum, due to the need for spermatogenesis to take place at a lower temperature. Creating testes that can function at body temperature would solve the abdominal wall weakness problem, remove the testicles from their vulnerable position, and eliminate the problem of cryptorchidism (undescended testicles), which is a risk factor for sterility and testicular cancer.
  • Small bowel obstruction from an annular pancreas, formed when the two buds that fuse during embryogenesis to form a single pancreatic structure fuse around the duodenum, causing obstruction, Formation from a single structure would eliminate this problem
  • Persistence of an embryonic yolk sac in adulthood as a Meckel’s diverticulum (a bulge off the small intestine), which can result in intestinal obstruction, bowel bleeding, peptic ulceration, and perforation. As our species does not lay eggs, we don’t need a yolk sac in the first place, so its presence is hard to reconcile with rational design.
  • Long Fallopian tubes increase the risk of ectopic pregnancy if a fertilised egg adheres to the tubal walls. By directly attaching the ovaries to the uterus, the egg is released into the uterus, eliminating the risk of ectopic pregnancy.
Such design flaws extend down to the very level of the genome. In an article in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences, evolutionary biologist John Avise notes among many genomic errors the problems inherent in the mitochondrial genome:
The serious health problems that arise from mtDNA mutations immediately challenge any claim for omnipotent perfection in mitochondrial design. Perhaps these mutational aberrations can be viewed as unfortunate but inevitable byproducts of molecular complexity. However, the intellectual challenges for ID go much deeper. Considering the critical role of cellular energy production in human health and metabolic operations, why would an intelligent designer entrust so much of the production process to a mitochondrion, given the outrageous molecular features this organelle possesses? Why would a wise designer have imbued mtDNA with some but not all of the genes necessary to carry out its metabolic role (and then put the remaining genes in the nucleus instead)? Why would a wise engineer have put any crucial genes in a caustic cytoplasmic environment in which they are exposed routinely to high concentrations of mutagenic oxygen radicals? Why would he have dictated that the mitochondrial genetic code must differ from the nuclear genetic code, thereby precluding cross-translation between two genomes for which effective communication would seem to be highly desirable? Why would an intelligent designer have engineered mtDNA structures (e.g., closed-circular genome, no introns, no junk DNA, lack of binding histones) and mtDNA operations (e.g., little or no genetic recombination, production of a polygenic transcript, limited ability to mend itself, no self-sufficiency in transcription or translation) to differ so fundamentally from their counterpart features in the nuclear genome? In a nutshell, the underlying design of the whole mitochondrial operation seems to make no (theo)logical sense. Not only is the overall design of mtDNA suboptimal, but it appears downright ludicrous! [7]
Speaking as a medical doctor, I would never use the term 'intelligent design' to describe these features. 

Immediately after this comment, Whitehouse remarks:
Interestingly, it was the Microsoft founder Bill Gates who had to acknowledge: “DNA is like a computer program but far, far more advanced than any software ever created.
It is not clear whether Whitehouse is making this remark, or reporting what Burges said, but either way, the presence of this venerable quote mine once again highlights the poor quality of research found in such anti-evolution presentations.

The main problem with this quote is that it is an argument from irrelevant authority. Gates has a background in information technology, which makes his opinion about genomics irrelevant. Furthermore, when you look into this quote (as with the Kauffman one earlier), the context shows a completely different story:
[Special creationists] claim that this is somehow "evidence" in favor of IDC, but is it? Bill Gates wrote the sentence (or one nearly like it), but he wrote it in chapter about education and the Internet, and not in the least related to evolution or creationism. Chapter 9 of his book is titled "Education: The Best Investment, and the context of the quoted sentence is how Gates realized that biology was an interesting topic to study. The paragraph follows:
We have all had teachers who made a difference. I had a great chemistry teacher in high school who made his subject immensely interesting. Chemistry seemed enthralling compared to biology. In biology, we were dissecting frogs - just hacking them to pieces, actually - and our teacher didn't explain why. My chemistry teacher sensationalized his subject a bit and promised that it would help us understand the world. When I was in my twenties, I read James D. Watson's "Molecular Biology of the Gene" and decided my high school experience had misled me. The understanding of life is a great subject. Biological information is the most important information we can discover, because over the next several decades it will revolutionize medicine. Human DNA is like a computer program but far, far more advanced than any software ever created. It seems amazing to me now that one great teacher made chemistry endlessly fascinating while I found biology totally boring. (Gates, The Road Ahead, Penguin: London, Revised, 1996 p. 228)
There you have it -- Gates is not investing a great deal of attention to the facts of genetics -- he is talking about his experiences as a high schooler and the importance of good teachers. Further, there is nothing in the sentence or the idea behind it that attacks science or backs supernaturalism. [8]
Furthermore, as Avise points out, the genome bears the indelible imprint of non-sentient design that directly results in genetic disease, something which argues strongly against it being the product of 'intelligent design'.

Burges' final talk 'God's wonderful designs in nature' continued the same facile argument from design theme which was apparent in his previous talk:
During the last session, the young people looked at the peacock and its beautiful feathers, and how their shimmering colour is due to a phenomenon known as ‘interference’; the woodpecker and how its specialised beak prevents physical and neurological trauma by diverting forces away from the brain; the amazing potter wasp and how they paralyse caterpillars with their sting so that they can lay their eggs on them – and for good reason too, this process is vital in the natural control of caterpillars.
As pointed out earlier, the argument from design fails for two reasons - the demonstrated ability of mutation and selection to effect intricate design, and the considerable evidence of objectively suboptimal and flawed design in nature. For every peacock feather or woodpecker beak Burges cites, it is trivial to cite examples such as the reproductive anatomy of the hyaena which is at best a lethal kludge: High infant and maternal mortality in hyenas directly results from their urogenital anatomy [8], in which the birth canal makes a sharp bend, before passing through a long hypertrophied clitoris that resembles a penis. Furthermore, the umbilical cord is much shorter than the birth canal meaning that it will break before the infant is born, increasing the chances of perinatal death:
The fetus moves along an exceptionally tortuous route, first following a caudal-ventral path from the uterus through the bony pelvic outlet, and then making a sharp turn in an anterior direction to traverse the clitoral canal to emerge through the meatus of the glans clitoris.
Entire reproductive tract of the female spotted hyena (Crocuta crocuta). Ovaries and oviducts are encased in the ovar- ian fat pad. Source 
...However, we now understand that, despite the size and elasticity of the meatus at term, the urogenital meatus has to tear in order to permit delivery in a primiparous female. In our captive colony, approximately 60% of first-births resulted in stillborn cubs, presumably because the placenta detached and the cubs became anoxic during the hours of labor that commonly follow detach-ment of the placenta, but precede delivery in a nulliparous female. [9]
Any design which requires females to give birth through a twisted birth canal and a narrow clitoris, resulting in considerable tearing, as well as death of up to 60% of pups because the placenta detaches before the cub is born, resulting in it dying from lack of oxygen is anything but intelligent.

Other examples of the grotesque, bizarre, and repellent in nature include:
  • Inter-tribal violence and cannibalism in chimpanzees [10]
  • Brood parasitism in the Greater Honeyguide whose chicks kill their foster siblings by stabbing them to death with a hooked bill. [11]
  • Infanticide in species such as lions [12] and Gray Langur monkeys [13]
  • Violent sexual behavior analogous to rape in ducks, which not infrequently results in female death. Accounts of homosexual necrophilia exist, [14] testifying to the violent sex drive of drakes. Not coincidentally, duck anatomy reflects a sexual arms race, [15] with oviducts that are long and spiraled with side pouches that can trap sperm from unwanted sexual encounters and expel it. Drake penises conversely can reach tumescence explosively in order to penetrate the oviduct rapidly. [16]
Claiming that these are "evidence of the Fall" not only is an argument without any substantive scriptural support, but simply cherry picking the aesthetically pleasing aspects of nature as evidence of special creation, while attributing everything that does not fit that special creationist pattern to 'the fall', an example of special pleading at its worst.

Burges' reference to parasitoid wasps as being 'essential to natural control of caterpillars' neatly elides over the viscerally repulsive manner in which they control caterpillar population:
  • They paralysing their prey and lay eggs in them
  • The larvae hatch, then slowly devour the caterpillar from within
  • Eventually, they bore their way out of their host and pupate.
Given that caterpillar control can be effected by less disturbing methods such as direct (and swift) predation by other animals which takes place in mere seconds, as opposed to the protracted time taken by the wasp larvae, such a method appears at best baroque, and at most morally dubious if the result of special creation. Charles Darwin’s observations on this subject cut to the heart of the problem that Burges elides:
 “With respect to the theological view of the question. This is always painful to me. I am bewildered. I had no intention to write atheistically. But I own that I cannot see as plainly as others do, and as I should wish to do, evidence of design and beneficence on all sides of us. There seems to me too much misery in the world. I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae [wasps] with the express intention of their [larva] feeding within the living bodies of Caterpillars, or that a cat should play with mice.” [17] 
Furthermore, one would expect that such control would be effected by a handful of species, but given there are nearly eighty thousand species of parasitoid wasps, all of which according to special creationists were individually hand-crafted, special creationists are confronted not with the prospect of an insect specially created to slowly devour alive other arthropods, but having shown considerable overkill in doing it eighty-thousand times. Again, this is exactly what one would expect from evolution, but under a model of special creation, such a plethora of species comes across as overkill.


Whitehouse commented on Burges' closing remarks in which he made the classical logical fallacy of the appeal to consequence, along with a gross misrepresentation of evolutionary biology:
Evolution says that everything happens by chance and so the future cannot  be predicted. It therefore presents  a hopeless future. What a contrast with God’s word the Bible!
Evolution says nothing of the sort. Put simply, evolution refers to the fact of common descent, as well as the theoretical mechanism by which this occurred. There is no moral lesson in evolution, any more than their is in solid state physics, inorganic chemistry, atmospheric physics, or developmental biology, so to claim that evolution 'presents a hopeless future' is grossly misleading, and frankly verging on crude scare tactics, a tacit admission of the paucity of evidence for the special creationist argument. 

Furthermore, evolution is not a theory of chance. Mutation is random, but natural selection most certainly is not random. In fact, it is the direct antithesis of random, as the word 'selection' clearly implies. In fact, no less a figure than the respected invertebrate palaeontologist and Christian Simon Conway Morris argues persuasively that evolution is consonant with creation:
In essence, we can ask ourselves what salient facts of evolution are congruent with a Creation. In my judgement, they are as follows: (1) its underlying simplicity, relying on a handful of building blocks; (2) the existence of an immense universe of possibilities, but a way of navigating to that minutest of fractions which actually work; (3) the sensitivity of the process and the product, whereby nearly all alternatives are disastrously maladaptive; (4) the inherency of life whereby complexity emerges as much by the rearrangement and co-option of pre-existing building blocks as against relying on novelties per se; (5) the exuberance of biological diversity, but the ubiquity of evolutionary convergence; (6) the inevitability of the emergence of sentience, and the likelihood that among animals it is far more prevalent than we are willing to admit." [18]
The failure of Burges to provide a factual, balanced account of evolution is hardly surprising given that the nature of such creation days is indoctrination, rather than education, but it does not diminish the magnitude of the error involved. Evolution is a fact. Special creation is completely inconsistent with the evidence, and by going out of their way to link orthodoxy with science denialism, Burges and his fellow special creationists are priming the next generation for a crisis of faith when they discover just how badly they have been mislead. To quote former YEC Gordon Hudson:
  • You are making the relevance of the bible conditional on the literal truth of a part of it which stands at odds with observable facts. 
  • You are unwittingly providing fuel for militant atheists.
  • You are misusing creation as a proof for the existence of God.
  • You are encouraging people to base their faith on a total denial of reason.
  • You are in danger of promoting lies.
One of the main motivations for maintaining this website is to counter the fundamentalism and denial of reason that is rampant in our community, and if I can rescue some of those who have been inculcated with such special creationist mendacity, it will be time well spent.


1. Whitehouse S "Hall Green Young People's Creation Day 2015 " The Christadelphian (2015) 152:267-269

2. Kauffman S At Home in the Universe: The Search for the Laws of Self-Organisation and Complexity (OUP: 1996)

3. ibid, p 31

4. ibid, p 45

5. "Evolution's Final Frontier" New Scientist (2009) 201:41-43

6. Novella S “Suboptimal Optics: Vision Problems as Scars of Evolutionary History Evo Edu Outreach (2008) 1:493-497

7. Avise J.C. “Footprints of nonsentient design inside the human genomeProc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA (2010) 107:8969-8976

9. ibid, p 207

10. Wilson, M. L., et al “Lethal aggression in Pan is better explained by adaptive strategies than human impacts.” Nature (2014) 513: 414-417.

11. Spottiswoode C.N., Koorevaar J “A stab in the dark: chick killing by brood parasitic honeyguidesBiol. Lett. (2012) 8:241-244 See also the video of foster sibling killing by honeyguide chicks here:

12. Packer, C., Pusey, A. "Adaptations of female lions to infanticide by incoming males". The American Naturalist (1983) 121: 716–728.

15.  Brennan, P. L. R. et al. Coevolution of male and female genital morphology in waterfowl. PloS ONE 2(5): e418 (2007)

16. Brennan, P. L. R., Clark, C. J. & Prum, R. O. Explosive eversion and functional morphology of the duck penis supports sexual conflict in waterfowl genitalia. Proc. R. Soc. B (2010) 277:1309–14

17. Darwin C. “Letter to Asa Gray” May 22nd 1860

18. Simon Conway Morris Life's Solution: Inevitable Humans in a Lonely Universe (2003: Cambridge University Press) p 329