Darwinism

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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’ve always thought of zoological gardens with larger establishments in mind – such as the Zoological Society of London’s Regents Park Zoo, or the Edinburgh Zoo, and expected these respectable zoos to act as sources of information about animals from around the world.  Of course there’s plenty of scope for rather more specialised zoos, such as those focussing on conservation.  Unfortunately it would seem there are also zoos with the purpose of misinforming the public.

I imagine the name of the Noah’s Ark zoo in North Somerset is something of a giveaway.  It is a small, privately run zoo which clearly espouses a creationist agenda.  Now the British Humanist Association has pointed this out, and it’s hit the media (Bristol Evening Post – Zoo attacked over Creationist beliefs; BBC News – ‘Creationist’ zoo causes dismay).  The Bristol Evening Post quotes Noah’s Ark research assistant Jon Woodwood as saying:

“To say that we are not upfront with our beliefs is unfounded – the name Noah’s Ark is the first indicator.  Our education policy is purely based around the National Curriculum.  We are offering our visitors the chance to look at the evolution/creation debate. As it is a free country, that is within our right. Contrary to a small minority of people’s claims we do not teach false science.  This is clearly shown within the zoo, with one exhibition talking about Darwin and another offering another point of view.

“We are slightly different from popular Creationism and hold a view that the natural world around us is the product of both God and evolution.  Although technically Creationists, we do not hold the stereotypical Creationist views that the world was created 6,000 years ago and there is no evolution.”

Woodward went o to say that the number of complaints on this subject was very small (10 in 120,000 visitors).  Interestingly, BBC page has an image of one of the signs at the zoo, with the text:

It also shows how three great people groups are descended from the sons of Noah: Shem, Ham and Japheth.
[and in smaller font] (who could have become the three races of humans alive today, that we knwo as the Semitic, the Negroid/Mongoloid and the White Caucasian).

Rather worryingly, the Evening News article quotes a Visit England spokesman as saying “Noah’s Ark adheres to the Visitor Attraction Quality Assurance Service criteria. We do not comment on the content of any attraction.”  It does seem to me that the content of an “attraction” is rather important when assessing its quality!

Looking through the educational links from the Noah’s Ark website takes you through a variety of relatively inoffensive topics, occasionally written in a curious style.  Unfortunately, a prominent item on the main tool bar menu is Creation Research.

Here it’s clear the owners of the zoo have their own take on creationism in which the fossil record reflects recolonisation after the Noachian flood.  The page goes on to spread the usual creationist canards…

Palaeontologists have struggled for more than a century to find transitional fossils to confirm the predictions of Darwinism. But, with some exceptions, these have not been found. See Darwinist steps of faith – the many missing links (at the time of writing this blog article, this link was to a page still to be written). Radioisotope dating has been used to show that the fossil record unfolded over billions of years. We suggest that while the method is not itself invalid, the dates produced by it are not supported by the primary evidence of the rocks and fossils themselves. See An Earth billions of years old?

There appears to be a mixed message here.  On the one hand, brief outlines of educational material, backed with larger expositions of an unfounded creationist agenda.  Noah’s Ark seems to push an identity as an attraction that can offer an range of educational activity, but on the evidence of its website, this seems to be a cover for a significant creationist agenda.  And I don’t think this can be purely based on the National Curriculum – after all people presumably don’t go to a zoo for RE!

I have to conclude that the BHA has a point, and that Visit England really ought to reflect on the meaning of “quality”.

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{{w|Francis Collins (geneticist)}} {{en|From h...
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I came across the BioLogos Foundation website the other day, following a reference to Francis Collins (the director of the international Human Genome Project, and both medically qualified and with a PhD in Physics, and who is a committed christian) and a statement he was purported to have made regarding the second law of thermodymanics and its implications on evolution (Pharyngula: Another disappointment from the Collins site).  BioLogos appears to be some kind of neologism coined by Collins to describe a kind of Theistic Evolution – the “L” seems to be intentionally capitalised.  Now, Collins is clearly a smart and talented scientist (and an effective scientific administrator), and I’m always interested to find out why such people hold views that seem to me to be so inherently at odds with a scientific approach to evidence.  Other members of the BioLogos Team and Board seem to have backgrounds in one of the christian denominations (though it’s not stated for one or two) – this presumably is an explanation for the christian focus of the Foundation.  There are many references to a belief in scripture (and in fact there’s a description of how to interpret scripture – presumably necessary if your Foundation disagrees with the literal interpretation of the biblical description of creation).

The website has a list of Questions (there are 33 of them, though the answers to questions 26 onwards are “coming soon”).  These begin with a description of what BioLogos is: Question 1: How is BioLogos different from Theistic Evolution, Intelligent Design and Creationism?.  As with many of the articles on the site, reference is quickly made to Francis Collins’ book The Language of God (which I’ve not read and, I suspect most visitors haven’t and won’t).  It would seem that BioLogos is a form of Theistic Evolution: a god exists, created the universe, interacts with it, and has created life by the use of evolution. The author of the article says of the origin of “BioLogos”:

BioLogos comes from the Greek words bios (life) and logos (word), referring to the gospel of John:

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” 1

Well. I would have thought that Question 1 might have involved some explanation of why the believers in BioLogos actually believe in a god.  It seems to me there is vast quantities of evidence that demonstrates and supports not only that evolution has occurred and explains the diversity of life but provides a testable mechanism for how it works.  In contrast there is no evidence for the existence of a deity, other than a human inability to understand the world around (or more probably an inability to accept there may be things we don’t yet know).

We can perhaps gain an insight to Collins’ theistic belief system from an interview dating from 2006 and available at Salon.com.  Here we hear Collins’ account of how as a young man undertaking a PhD in quantum physics he did not see the need for belief in a god.  apparently it was while a medical student that his atheist views were challenged – it would seem by seeing how people coped with suffering because of their faith:

[…] I watched people who were suffering from terrible diseases. And one of my patients, after telling me about her faith and how it supported her through her terrible heart pain, turned to me and said, “What about you? What do you believe?” And I stuttered and stammered and felt the color rise in my face, and said, “Well, I don’t think I believe in anything.” But it suddenly seemed like a very thin answer. And that was unsettling. I was a scientist who was supposed to draw conclusions from the evidence and I realized at that moment that I’d never really looked at the evidence for and against the possibility of God.

There’s no explanation of why his atheism seemed such a “thin answer” to him.  Stage 2 was reading C. S. Lewis and stage 3 was a revelation received when he encountered a frozen waterfall while hiking.  Unfortunately none of this clarifies why he believes in a  deity, other than a need to believe.

Possibly relevant is the answer to Question 19: What is the “fine-tuning” of the universe, and how does it serve as a “pointer to God”? (), an article which really addresses what is known as the anthropic principle:

[…] the physical constants of nature — like the strength of gravity — and the beginning state of the Universe — like its density — have extremely precise values. The slightest variation from their actual values results in a lifeless universe. For this reason, the universe seems finely-tuned for life. This observation is referred to as the anthropic principle, a term whose definition has taken many variations over the years.

Once again, we’re referred to Collins’ book.  This article has quite a succinct explanation of why the second law of thermodynamics cannot argue against evolution of life (essentially because the Earth isn’t a closed system – energy is continually entering the system in the form of solar radiation). The author of the article goes on to say “it seems that out of an unfathomable number of possibilities, our universe is one of very few which is capable of hosting life. Consequently, many of these observations have been used as pointers to God”.  My own response to this kind of statement is that it’s irrelevant how unlikely that set of constants may be, if they were incompatible with the appearance not only of life but of intelligent life, we’d not be here to observe it.  This seems to me to be an excellent rebuttal (but then I would!).  The author counters that argument with a quotation (from John Leslie – the author is quoting from a secondary source, so this blog article represents a tertiary quote!) – that the argument is akin to a survivor of the attentions of a firing squad saying:

“Of course all of the shots missed, otherwise I wouldn’t be here to notice that I’m still alive!” A much more logical approach would be to seek out an explanation for why such an unlikely event occurred. A good scientific explanation satisfies curiosity, whereas this kind of explanation does nothing to offer any resolution.

No.  “Why” is an inappropriate question in the context, inappropriate in the same way as the expectation there “has” to be a “meaning” to life. The fact that our existence is dependent on a narrow range of physical constants isn’t any kind of evidence for a deity.

My problem with the concept of BioLogos is that it critically depends on the belief in the existence of a deity to start things off and to keep an eye on life as it evolves.  Interestingly the BioLogos site maintains that BioLogos is compatible with the three principal monotheistic beliefs (one wonders what the many interpretations of those belief systems make of that statement), but the website has an overwhelming acceptance of christianity.

In closing, I’d like to note that Jerry Coyne’s posted a demolition of the BioLogos website, in stronger terms than I, in his excellent Why Evolution is True blog (Shoot me now: Francis Collins’s new supernaturalist website).

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Diagram representing the divergence of species
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The Dallas News website reports (Split vote upholds Texas education board ruling to ax evolution ‘strengths and weaknesses’ rule) that the creationist threat to science education in Texas may have been averted.

A last-ditch effort by social conservatives to require that Texas teachers cover the “weaknesses” in the theory of evolution in science classes was rejected by the State Board of Education Thursday in a split vote.

Board members deadlocked 7-7 on a motion to restore a long-time curriculum rule that “strengths and weaknesses” of all scientific theories – notably Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution – be taught in science classes and covered in textbooks for those subjects.

If true, this means that Don McLeroy’s manipulations may have been thwarted.  Celebration may be premature, as a final vote will be held on Friday (but the news report indicates it’s unlikely to change).

Update: Associated Press reports that

“Publishers are waiting to hear what to put in their textbooks,” said Dan Quinn, a spokesman for the watchdog group Texas Freedom Network.

In approving a handful of amendments Thursday, the board “slammed the door on creationism, then ran around the house opening up all the windows to let it in another way,” Quinn said. “We hope the vote tomorrow will reverse a lot of that.”

In one amendment, the board agreed to require high school biology students to “analyze and evaluate the sufficiency or insufficiency of natural selection to explain the complexity of the cell.”

Board member Don McLeroy said his amendment was intended “to account for that amazing complexity. I think it’s a standard that makes it honest with our children.”

So perhaps Devious Don will get his own way after all…

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The science journal Nature reports that a Turkish popular science magazine, Bilim ve Teknik (Science and Technology), has been forced to withdraw its March cover story concerning Darwin and evolution (Turkish scientists claim Darwin censorship).

As part of this process, the magazine’s editor lost her job.  It seems as though this is an act of political interference from Turkey’s research funding and science management organization, TÜBİTAK, who recently took over running the magazine.  The article in Nature reports that

In an interview with Milliyet, one of Turkey’s highest-circulation daily newspapers, the editor of Bilim ve Teknik, Çiğdem Atakuman, confirmed that she had been removed from her post over the affair, but declined to comment further because she is still a TÜBİTAK employee.

Milliyet reports that the editorial changes were ordered by TÜBİTAK’s vice-president, engineer Ömer Cebeci. Neither Cebeci nor TÜBİTAK’s president, Nüket Yetiş, were available to be interviewed by Nature, and the agency has released no official statement on the matter.

If true, this is nothing short of appalling – that in a supposedly secular nation (albeit under seige by reactionary Islam) such ideologically motivated censorship should be conducted by a national science research organisation horrifies me.  I guess many readers of this blog will be aware of the bizarre creationist buffoon Adnan Oktar (aka Harun Yahya), who engineered the banning of Richard Dawkins’ website in Turkey, and who has flooded the world with irrational and stupid books proclaiming Darwinist evolution as dead.

I am saddened by the nature of the comments appended to the Nature article, and suspect the hand of Adnan Oktar and his followers.  They start with some reasonable comments (from both Turks and non-Turks), but then descend into a series of absurd creationist rants (all signed with Turkish-sounding names).  At the risk of sounding totally geeky, perhaps it would be interesting to to know the origin of the comments and whether this looked like an orchestrated response.  Some examples:

Harun Yahya has long told about a global Darwinist dictatorship, which has control over almost every institution, publication etc all over the world. But this dictatorship will eventually collapse. What has happened now here in Turkey is just an example of standing up against this dictatorship. Bravo!

Clearly a devotee of Adnan Oktar there, I guess, and with an unhealthy dose of conspiracy theory.  Perhaps a tinfoil hat would help.  Here’s an example of spectacular ignorance:

If there is no evidence in a theory, we do not believe it. This is as clear as the sun in the sky. There is – NO – evidence for any gradual development in nature. Where do you find step by step evolution in nature? Half developed noses? Half developed smelling ability? Half developed ribosomes? Half developed pancreas? Half developed lungs? Just do not breath for more than a few minutes, you die! Reason and logic work hand in hand and science decides on reason. Darwin was wrong! There is no evolution in the entirety of living organisms. Otherwise, the earth would be filled with mutants and all fossils unearthed would come up to be freaks. Please think without prejudice for a few seconds. Darwin fooled the entire world.

Pretty much classic boneheaded ignorance there, and on a par with Adnan Oktar’s intellectual capability (i.e. severely limited).  I would suspect a coordinated campaign by Oktar’s brigade of Islamic creationists.

One or two comments have been left by individuals who say they are Turkish postdocs working overseas, and reading those just makes me so sad and sympathetic for their situation.

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Heresy Corner reports (Creationists disrupt Vatican Darwin conference) that mad Turkish creationist Adnan Oktar sent a fellow buffoon along to disrupt the Vatican’s conference on evolution.  They even recorded a video, albeit garbled.

Adnan Oktar, of course is the crazy Turkish creationist (aka Harun Yahya) who mails out huge green books lavishly illustrated with fossils and extant species, with the aim of showing that there has been no evolutionary change.  Unfortunately for Oktar/Yahya, any reasonably close examination reveals an extraordinary level of ignorance (e.g. spider crabs are not crabs, fishing flies are not really insects, etc).

From the Reuters report (Anti-Darwin speaker gagged at Vatican evolution conference, a particularly loaded title if you ask me):

At the end of the first session Oktar Babuna, a Turkish doctor and collaborator of prominent Turkish anti-Darwin campaigner Harun Yahya [aka Adnan Oktar],asked for the floor to put forward a question. Babuna, a proponent of the Islamic creationist campaign against evolution, spoke about his view that there were insufficient transitional forms from species to species to support the theory of evolution.

After he began speaking two professors on the dias, Francisco J. Ayala of the University of California at Irvine and Douglas Futuyma of the State University of New York were visibly irritated. Someone in the hall can be heard saying “turn the microphone off” and seconds later two organisers approached Babuna. One of them abruptly took the microphone away from Babuna and another ordered him to go back to his seat.

I can’t actually make much out of the audio, other than that it seems as though Babuna merely rehashes Oktar’s ludicrous claims that there are no transitional forms (well he does apparently have a peculiar idea of what such transitional forms might look like).

Does anyone else find it amusing that a Vatican conference on evolution is disrupted by a creationist?

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Andrew Marr has written and presented a three part BBC TV series on the impact of “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea” – I managed to cath the second half of last night’s installment, which was the first.  He’s written an article on the BBC News website, The danger of worshipping Darwin, in which he writes about his atheism and asks whether we are elevating Darwin to a religious figure.  In fact I don’t think he really thinks this is the case (and I wonder whether the article is really intended as a publicity piece for his TV series).  At the end of his article, he concludes

I believe Darwin was right and that as science advances, he is proved more prescient, not less.

But religions are absolute. They bring their truth and then repel all boarders. They divide mankind into the saved and the ignorant damned.

In this story, there is no us and them. Darwinism, as I take it, is a creed of observation, fact, a deep modesty about conclusions and lifelong readiness to be proved wrong.

I don’t say it offers everything that religion can. But I do say that, in this respect, it is better.

However we celebrate the old man, we mustn’t let his work crust into creed or harden to dogma.

I think in the course of his article, Marr answers his question – there is no chance of Darwin’s work, or that of his successors crusting into creed or hardening into dogma – for there lies the difference between science and religion.  Being founded on evidence, evolutionary concepts will always be subject to revision and modification. I think that the possibility of the perception of “Darwin worship” has been one of the potential problems with the Darwin 200 celebrations, but I think if there is such a public perception, it is mistaken.

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There’s a report at Yahoo news (Cardinal says atheist’s theories “absurd”) with more information on the present Vatican conference I mentioned yesterday.  In a bizarre but typically tortuous statement,Cardinal William Levada, head of the Vatican‘s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, said

the Catholic Church doesn’t stand in the way of scientific realities like evolution, saying there was a “wide spectrum of room” for belief in both the scientific basis for evolution and faith in God the creator.

“We believe that however creation has come about and evolved, ultimately God is the creator of all things,” he said on the sidelines of the conference.

But while the Vatican did not exclude any area of science, it did reject as “absurd” the atheist notion of biologist and author Richard Dawkins and others that evolution proves there is no God, he said.

I suspect that the phrase “creation has come about” is a bit of a giveaway, leading to the statement about a god being the creator of all things.  As The Freethinker has pointed out, the cardinal misrepresents Dawkins here.  Amusing, particularly with the next paragraph:

“Of course we think that’s absurd and not at all proven,” he said. “But other than that … the Vatican has recognized that it doesn’t stand in the way of scientific realities.”

This is a peculiar and irrational thing to say.  Proving a negative is after all rather difficult.  It seems to me that the evidence of proof lies not with those saying there is very unlikely to be any supernatural deities but with those that aver the existence of a deity.  What evidence does the Catholic church (or indeed any set of religious believers) have for the existence of their deity (or deities)?

Francis Ayala, one of the speakers and described as a former priest and professor of biological sciences and philosophy at the University of California, is reported to have made a firm statement that “Intelligent Design” is blasphemous to both science and religion:

“It is not only not compatible with Christian faith, it is just blasphemous because it predicates from the creator attributes that we don’t want to have from the creator,” he said.

Perhaps he’s been mis-cited by Yahoo News, but I don’t see how something can be blasphemous against science, and I don’t see that reference in the actual quotation used in the article.  And when phrased in that way, it doesn’t represent a particularly robust objection to ID.

I’ve never really wondered about the religious beliefs of scientists before starting this blog, but occasionally they are made apparent.  I’ve blogged recently about Simon Conway Morris, and I noted here the reference to Ayala as a former priest.  Are the other scientific speakers selected on the basis of their theist beliefs?

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I see from the BBC News website (Vatican hosts Darwin conference) that the Vatican is holding a conference to mark the 150th anniversary of the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species.  According to the BBC

Scientists, philosophers and theologians from around the world are gathering at the prestigious Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome to discuss the compatibility of Darwin’s theory of evolution and Catholic teaching.

Apparently it’s one of two conferences – the other is about Galileo’s work – the intention is apparently to “to re-examine the work of scientific thinkers whose revolutionary ideas challenged religious belief: Galileo and Charles Darwin.”  Amusingly, the report points out that the Catholic Church never condemned Darwin, as it condemned and silenced Galileo. I suppose that threats of burning at the stake just would’t have cut it in the 19th century.

You can read about the conference at the Pontifica Universita Gregoriana website.  The theme of the conference is explained, sort of, in a typically tortuous piece of text.  On the Aims page, we find that

Thanks to recent discoveries, we can reconsider the problem of evolution within a broader perspective then traditional neo-darwinism. [emphasis mine]

Well, I for one don’t perceive a “problem of evolution”, but I suppose if one’s wedded to a bizarre set of beliefs, one might regard it as a problem.  The program reveals quite an interesting set of speakers – I wonder if there will be any published outcome of the conference.

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The Guardian trumpets “Four out of five Britons repudiate creationism” – after yet another report emanating from religious thinktank Theos (Faith and Darwin).  I haven’t yet had an opportunity to read the report (it’s 116 pages), but Theos helpfully provide a sort of interactive map of their survey results, in which 2060 people were surveyed.   The Guardian’s report indicates the survey might well not be worth the paper it’s written on, judging by the general understanding of a proportion of those surveyed:

The poll also revealed some extraordinary views on more recent writings, with 5% of adults thinking Darwin wrote A Brief History of Time, a bestseller on the science of spacetime, which was written by the Cambridge physicist Stephen Hawking and is widely regarded as the most popular science book never to be completed by its readers.

A further 3% of those surveyed thought Darwin wrote The God Delusion, by the arch-atheist and Oxford biologist Richard Dawkins, while 1% thought Darwin was the author of The Naked Chef by Jamie Oliver.

However, I’m not sure how The Guardian comes up with their statement that four out of five Britons repudiate creationism: they go on to say

The survey suggests there is a widespread lack of religious sentiment across Britain. National average figures revealed that less than a third of adults see evolution as part of God’s plan, 89% dismiss intelligent design and 83% reject creationism as plausible explanations for the existence of human life.

It depends on whatoverlap there is between believers in ID and creationism – if they are non-verlapping sets, then belief in creationism is really 28%, since ID is really a creationist proposal.  I guess I need to get a look at the numbers myself!  I do agree with New Humanist (A godless, rational nation?) that

If the Theos figures are correct and 17 out of 100 people in Britain are indeed creationists, then our education system really needs to address that. It may seem like a small number when compared to, say, the United States, but it’s still 17% too many.

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