October 2011

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A recurrent theme from the religious right and the Intelligent Design creationists is that the Nazi racial policies that led to the Holocaust were inextricably linked to Hitler’s reading of Darwin. Some of my earliest blogging at this site addressed this issue
(Did Darwinism lead inevitably to the Holocaust? part 1 – Eugenics and Part 2).

But of course, Intelligent Design creationists cannot let go of this discredited idea. In particular, the Discovery Institute continually presses the accusation that Darwin’s theories somehow inevitably led to the Holocaust, in particular by advancing the ideas of one Richard Weikart. This morning I noted an article at Sensuous Curmudgeon – Hitler & Darwin, Part II – which, quite apart from setting the foolishness of the Intelligent Design creationists in context, provided a link to a particularly interesting paper (Was Hitler a Darwinian? from the historian Robert J. Richards of the University of Chicago.

I’d just like to recommend Richards’ paper (and, indeed, the Sensuous Curmudgeon) which clearly sets out the origins of Hitler’s anti-semitism.  Not that it will deter the Discovery Institute from further distorting history.

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I previously noted the proposal from Caledonian MacBrayne to operate Sunday ferry services from the Outer Hebrides (Ferries on The Sabbath).  My opinion at the time was rather sympathetic to the cultural norms of the outer isles – that Sundays are a day of rest.  I might find the near-total shutdown of island life on Sundays rather complicates my frequent cycling holidays on the Isles, but cultural diversity makes human life that bit more interesting.  I note from the BBC News website that Sunday sailings from Tarbert on Harris are to begin, today perhaps (New Sunday ferry service for Harris to start).  It’ll be interesting to see how this affects my future trips to the area.

CalMac ferry heading out from Uig

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Dr Alastair Noble has penned a rather defensive article at the C4ID website, in response to James Williams’ recent blog concerning some radio discussions he had had with Noble (Intelligent Design Creationism is not Science). Unlike Williams’ blog (and this one), the C4ID website does not brook any comment, preferring to push their line of reasoning unchallenged.

I have a number of comments and observations relating to the latest Noble epistle and in particular in relation to Intelligent Design creationism as an alternative to an evolutionary explanation of life’s diversity.  For my rebuttal of many of C4ID’s claims about ID as an alternative to evolutionary biology, see my article “C4ID’s Introduction to Intelligent Design: A critique”.

Firstly, is Intelligent Design creationism actually a scientific enterprise? Well, the origins of ID as a front for biblical creationism are well-established (the ‘Wedge Strategy‘). ID was devised as a way of adding an apparently scientific veneer to creationism as a way of inveigling creationism back into American public schools. Unlike the UK, where we are plagued by a high proportion of church schools, the American consitutional separation of church and state essentially forbids the teaching of religious doctrine (most notably theologically aberrant doctrines such as Young Earth Creationism). We mustn’t get diverted into a supposition that YEC is the only form of creationism: there are a variety of creationist stances, including those of a more theistic evolutionary bent. And that is to only consider christian creationism.

So, it’s clear that ID was devised as a front for creationist infiltration of the American school system, and that it does this by using words and arguments lifted from science. But is it science? The answer to that has to be a resounding ‘no’. ID creationism merely takes the stance that a complex living system seems to be to complex to have evolved, and that a designer must somehow have put that system in place. This is a profoundly un-intellectual approach, and is essentially saying “I cannot understand how this has come into being, I will not investigate and I will assume a Designer”. And what supernatural entity would have had the capacity to design the bacterial flagellum (in all its varieties), bacteria (in all their varieties), plants, animals, fungi etc? Who else but the god of Alastair Noble. If this is not creationism, I don’t know what is.

Does ID creationism advance credible, testable hypotheses? No. ID creationism merely takes the observation of biological complexity and advances the claim that it must have been designed. There is no proof of design other than the observer’s ignorance. Does ID creationism have any truly explanatory power? No.

Williams’ contention that I don’t know the definition of Intelligent Design used by the Discovery Institute is just fatuous. The primary definition of ID, widely used by Discovery, is that ‘certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, not by an undirected process such as natural selection’.

Well this may be attractive to someone who, as a chemist, may well have received little or no biological education. But for those of us who have, and who are both active researchers and teachers in the biological sciences, this is trivial fluff. Natural selection is the process that ultimately gives the illusion of design, using as raw material the genetic variation that continually arises.

What that means is that there is hard evidence in nature which suggests design. The starting point is the evidence. No-one is imposing design on nature and then looking for evidence. It’s the other way round. What James Williams seems to find difficult is the difference between a scientific conclusion and its implications. Of course ID has profound religious and philosophical implications, but those are consequent to the interpretation of the evidence. [my emphasis]

The key here is that design is suggested. Not that it is a reality. One really cannot conclude that something is designed just because it looks that way. In my opinion, Noble is disengenuous here here when he claims that the religious and philosophical implications are consequent to interpretation of evidence – I cannot believe he is unaware of the evidence that ID creationism was devised for the purpose of infiltrating religious views into American schools. Much of this evidence comes from the Discovery Institute and was famously examined in Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District.

And as to whether Williams’ position on the claim that ID creationism is truly science, I refer the reader to the very article to which Noble takes exception (Intelligent Design Creationism is not Science) – it would be unreasonable to cut and paste so much text.

Alastair Noble, who holds a PhD in Chemistry, frequently writes about DNA. From his writing, he appears to be rather ignorant, misguided or just ill-informed on the subject. This PhD of his is much-touted as some kind of qualification as a scientist – presumably it’s hoped (with some justification) that the public won’t grasp the distinction between chemistry and biology. Unfortunately a PhD awarded about 40 years ago in a non-biological discipline (albeit followed by a brief research career in chemistry) does not really qualify him to make many of his public statements on biology. What may be more of a guide to his attempts to further ID creationism is his religious background (Noble is an elder of the Cartsbridge Evangelical Church in Glasgow and a lay preacher). Indeed very, very few supporters of ID creationism are biologists (and those that are, such as Michael Behe, hold strong religious views).

Scientists of course don’t know how DNA came to be the near-universal genetic material, though many hypotheses have been forwarded, among them that the forerunner may have been RNA. Aspects of these hypotheses frame testable questions, though how good an explanation of life’s origins we can reach is debatable. From the point of view of evolutionary biology, this is moot: evolutionary biology deals with the processes by which the diversity of life around us arose, not the origins of life. It is interesting to note the congruence in strategy between ID creationisms and young earth creationists as they all consider the origins of life to be a big problem for evolutionary biology.

Noble recommends that:

[…] Williams reads ‘God’s Undertaker – Has Science buried God’ (Lion 2009) by Prof John Lennox, a world-class mathematician at Oxford, who certainly knows what he is talking about when he deals with types of information.

Yes, Lennox, who is I believe a creationist and holds strong religious views is a mathematician, not a biologist.

It may be hard for someone with a 40 year old qualification in Chemistry to grasp this, but decades of biological research involving genetics and molecular biology has not only demonstrated that genetic information can and does increase (and decrease) during the diversification of life, but has clearly shown how these changes can and do occur. Alastair Noble exhorts us to read more on the subject:

For biological life, it matters a great deal whether the information is functional or not, and Shallit simply fails to deal with this. Stephen Meyer in his book ‘Signature in the Cell’ (HarperOne 2009) certainly does.

Well, Meyer is the founder of the Discovery Institute. His biography at the Wikipedia page is informative: several of his qualifications derive from religious institutions, and none are in biology.

What, then, of the vast scientific enterprise, particularly in the biological sciences, for whom evolutionary biology is key to interpreting experimatal data? Are all these investigators really denying the truth of the existence of a Designer? Is this a conspiracy against the lone intellectuals in the ID creationist movement? Is this, as Alastair Noble contends, ‘Intellectual Fascism’?

Or is this really the paranoia of a small band of energetic people pushing a religious agenda?

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The British Humanist Association reveals why the Everyday Champions Church’s bid for a Free School was rejected (Everyday Champions Church Free School bid rejected due to creationism).  As the title of that blog article indicates, it was pretty much down to the ECC’s stance on creationism.  The Church’s leader, Pastor Gareth Morgan, made it pretty clear how the school planned to present creationism:

“Creationism will be taught as the belief of the leadership of the school,” Pastor Morgan said. “It will not be taught exclusively in the sciences, for example. At the same time, evolution will be taught as a theory.”

According to the BHA’s report:

The school’s bid was rejected on Monday, and the reason is now known. In having their bid rejected, the Church was told by the Department for Education that ‘The Secretary of State carefully considered your application, the views and beliefs of your organisation as set out in your application, your responses at interview and information about your organisation available in the public domain. He was unable to accept that an organisation with creationist beliefs could prevent these views being reflected in the teaching in the school and in its other activities. It is his firm view that the teaching of creationist views as a potentially valid alternative theory is not acceptable in a 21st century state funded school.’ The Church is now planning to re-apply for 2013, and is adamant that they would only teach the story of creation in RE.

It’s a little disheartening to hear that this bunch who clearly read the much (mis-) translated writings of a gang of bronze-age nomads as the literal truth of a supernatural entity are going to make a second bid to be allowed to interfere with the education of children.  Hopefully the next attempt won’t gain much more traction in the DfE.

Of course the wider issue here is that too many schools are faith schools of one kind or another.  I strongly support the BHA’s campaign against faith schools, though I fear in the current reactionary and socially conservative political scene it’s going to be an uphill battle.  See also the campaign to strengthen the prohibition of the teaching of creationism in science classes (Teach Evolution not Creationism).  In my view, the place for creationism  has its place in the curriculum: in Religious Education classes along with all the other creation myths that have been claimed over the millennia.

And as a postscript, the so-called Intelligent Design form of creationism is also not science.  It can propose no hypotheses, makes no testable predictions, and merely claims to infer the existence of an unproven supernatural entity.

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The British Humanist Association has some news on the latest tranche of Free Schools.

The headline news is that the Everyday Champions Church bid for a free school appears to have been rejected.  You may recall that the ECC is an avowedly creationist crew, which would not sit well with Michael Gove’s public statements that creationism is not to be taught as science. Indeed, Gove referred to creationism as ‘wackoidal’ in one recent statement.

Of the 55 schools given the go-ahead, 11 have an essentially religious character.  While this is actually rather fewer than anticipated, I would agree with the BHA that is remains an issue:

The 11 ‘faith’ schools include three Anglican schools, a Catholic school, three other Christian schools, a Jewish school, a Sikh school, a Hindu school and a Muslim school. Additionally, Frome Steiner Academy, a second state-funded Steiner school, is due to open. Steiner schools are not formally designated with a religious character, but still have complete control over their own curriculum.

The BHA also says:

One of the schools that progressed to interview stage, but has now been rejected, is Everyday Champions Academy, proposed by Everyday Champions Church. In February, church leader Pastor Gareth Morgan stated that ‘Creationism will be taught as the belief of the leadership of the school. It will not be taught exclusively in the sciences, for example. At the same time, evolution will be taught as a theory.’

I don’t know what the grounds for refusing the ECC bid for a Free School, but that statement from the church leader must have rung alarm bells up and down the corridors of power.  On the other hand, David Colquhoun (the well-known campaigner against teaching quack medicine and other non-science in Universities) has posted a set of three articles outlining why he believes Rudolf Steiner education to be ‘mystical barmpottery’ (The true nature of Steiner (Waldorf) education. Mystical barmpottery at taxpayers’ expense).

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