Another meeting on ID creationism!

That hotbed of UK Intelligent Design creationism and Discovery Institute wannabees, the Centre for Intelligent Design (C4ID) has been sending out publicity for another meeting at which Intelligent Design creationism will feature. C4ID Director Dr Alastair Noble enthusiastically writes:

I write to draw your attention to a fascinating conference on Design in Nature being organised by the Philosophy of Religion section of the Tyndale Fellowship in Cambridge.

Here is the doctrinal position of the Tyndale Fellowship Philosophy of Religion Section- very focussed on christianity – as is their Mission Statement. It is reportedly an academic society associated with Tyndale House, a residential biblical study centre in Cambridge.

Stephen Meyer and Steve Fuller will present aspects of Intelligent Design and the other speakers will explore some philosophical implications of the Design Argument. Details of the day and of the talks can be found at Information about booking is also available there.

Part of the background to this conference is the C4ID Inaugural Lecture given in London last November by Stephen Meyer which stimulated Tyndale Philosophy to follow up that event with a day conference to explore some key philosophical implications of the ancient question of Design in Nature and the re-emergence of Intelligent Design.

I wonder what’s meant by the re-emergence of Intelligent Design? Maybe that refers to a resurgence of ID twaddle in the UK and the establishment of C4ID, after the Kitzmiller case saw a pretty definitive slap-down for ID creationism in the USA back in 2005.

This will be a significant day conference, dealing with contemporary and controversial issues. I would urge you to attend.

In addition to Stephen Meyer and Steve Fuller, two other speakers are taking part, Stephen Clark (Emeritus Professor, Liverpool) and David Glass (University of Ulster). None of the four speakers appear to be biologists, which is about par for the course for this sort of event (though when I read the email, I wondered if the conference organisers were mounting their own version of Project Steve!).  This seems to be another of these events intent on convincing participants that there is any kind of controversy about evolution.  Other than in their own little world, of course – biologists just continue on their merry way working within the context of evolutionary biology and for the most part ignore these peripheral and generally religiously motivated voices arguing for a celestial designer.

Alastair Noble rounds off his email with another exhortation to buy the entirely risible pseudo-textbook “Explore Evolution”:

P.S. There is probably no other book on the market like Explore Evolution!  Click here to view a full-colour summary of  the book which will help you make up your own mind, from the scientific evidence, about the adequacy of Darwinism to explain the development and complexity of life.

Noble is probably correct when he says “There is probably no other book on the market like Explore Evolution!“, and for that we really ought to be grateful. You may recall that Explore Evolution was previously distributed by the very oddly and inaccurately named Truth in Science. There is a brief review of this short book by the BCSE, a lengthier deconstruction by the NCSE, and a review in the academic journal Evolution & Development. Suffice it to say, Explore Evolution is a deeply deceptive and dishonest treatment of the subject.  For Alastair Noble to peddle this misinformation is a poor show, and particularly so when he targets it at school students (as he has done in recent emails). Remember, he has a past (and possibly current) role as Education Officer with CARE – the Contact Us page for CARE in Scotland lists Alastair Noble as Education Officer.

Returning to the C4ID publicised meeting, it seems to have developed from the Meyer lecture back in November last year, which has attracted the attention of the Tyndale Fellowship.  It’s interesting to note that it’s to be held at the Tyndale Fellowship Philosophy of Religion Section (see links to their doctrinal position above).  Not bad for a supposedly scientific alternative to the rigorously investigated and experimentally supported science of Evolutionary Biology.

C4ID pushing creationist textbook at school students

I received an advertising email from the UK’s very own Discotute wannabees, the Centre for Intelligent Design. It’s advertising a ‘textbook’ entitled Explore Evolution, and it’s headlined Explore Evolution– A remarkable book. In common with quite a bit of creationist activity, Explore Evolution seems to be named with the intention to deceive: in reality this publication aims to persuade the reader that there is a genuine scientific controversy, and that creationist views such as Intelligent Design are credible alternatives to evolutionary biology. You can read analyses of this ‘textbook’ by the BCSE and NCSE (the NCSE’s analysis is particularly detailed). There’s also a Wikipedia page on the book. And here’s a review at Ars Technica.

The advert begins:

I write to encourage you to buy a copy of the remarkable book Explore Evolution whose authors include the scientists Stephen Meyer, Paul Nelson and Scott Minnich.   This textbook, which is particularly suitable for senior high school students and undergraduates, is a must read for anyone who is interested in the continuing controversy about Darwinian evolution.  It is also a book to pass on to those who are studying the subject or are confused by the debate. [my emphasis]

It’s bogus – there is no controversy about ‘Darwinian evolution’.  If anything there is a manufactured social controversy, engineered by particular groups and individuals, often with a distinctively religious agenda. I’ve emphasised some text which makes it clear that Dr Alastair Noble (who holds a PhD in Chemistry rather than the Biological Sciences) is seeking to push his Intelligent Design creationism at schools.

This book will help you make up your own mind, from the scientific evidence, about the adequacy of Darwinism to explain the development and complexity of life.

More probably, the intention is to confuse the reader!

Explore Evolution first surfaced in the UK when the fundamentalist creationist group Truth in Science mailed copies to school librarians (BCSE responded by circulating an Open Letter to School Librarians). This looks to me like further blurring of the artificial boundaries between ID creationism and other forms of creationism.

UPDATE: One other relevant observation is that the Contact Us page for CARE in Scotland lists Alastair Noble as Education Officer. CARE is a Christian lobbying group which has interns working for MPs at Westminster. Here’s a Herald article (Rival to evolution may enter schools) in which Dr Noble is quoted:

Alastair Noble is an educational consultant who has been invited by both denominational and non- denominational secondary schools to present ID on a scientific basis. He said: “I gauge a growing level of interest from pupils and teachers. My guess is that the (TiS) DVDs are being used by a small but significant number of teachers.”

“It deserves formal consideration. It presents a scientific challenge to the construct that the world is the result of blind and purposeless forces.”

A more recent article at the Herald includes this strange bit of doublespeak from Dr Noble:

The group’s director, Dr Alastair Noble, told the Sunday Herald it was “inevitable” the debate would make its way into schools — even though the Scottish Government says teachers should not regard intelligent design as science.

“We are definitely not targeting schools, but that doesn’t mean to say we may not produce resources that go to schools,” Dr Noble said, adding that he had already been asked to speak in Scottish schools, and agreed to do so.

Alastair Noble touts for engagements to push Intelligent Design creationism (including in schools)

I received an email from the Centre for Intelligent Design (the UK organisation pushing Intelligent Design creationism). The main offer is that these presentations are free (though contributions would be welcome). The full text has also been blogged here. I particularly noted this paragraph:

I have a number of illustrated presentations which are suitable for college, university, church or public audiences and which deal with various aspects of Intelligent Design. Although C4ID is not specifically targeting schools, I am also happy to give talks in schools, to classes or clubs, where appropriate. 

Dr Alastair Noble (his PhD is in Chemistry, rather than the biological sciences) has spent much of his career working in education, particularly from a religious perspective.  This has of course led to accusations in the press that he’s going to be targetting schools, for example this report in the Herald, from which this quotation:

The group’s director, Dr Alastair Noble, told the Sunday Herald it was “inevitable” the debate would make its way into schools — even though the Scottish Government says teachers should not regard intelligent design as science.

“We are definitely not targeting schools, but that doesn’t mean to say we may not produce resources that go to schools,” Dr Noble said, adding that he had already been asked to speak in Scottish schools, and agreed to do so.

Maybe I’m a suspicious old thing, but I think it might be interesting to see how many schools engage Dr Noble.

Happy Kitzmas!

Happy Kitzmas. This is the sixth anniversary of the famous decision in Kitzmiller vs Dover School Board, which really exposed the duplicity of those in the Intelligent Design creationist movement. Judge Jones, who many did not see as a particular ally to those fighting this incursion of religion into American schools, actually provided a exceptional smack-down of the devious and dishonest strategy taken by those wishing to push Intelligent Design creationism as science. This has led to many US-based bloggers to conclude that Intelligent Design creationism is something of a ‘busted flush’. But in reality, this is only true in the USA, where publicly funded schools are prohibited by the Constitution from teaching or promoting religion. In contrast, here in the UK we have a government that actively encourages the development of faith schools, and via its ideologically driven Free Schools raises the spectre of increasing the presence of creationism in our nation’s schools. Continue reading “Happy Kitzmas!”

Reports on Stephen Meyer’s lecture

The Christians in Science website (which I’ve hitherto not visited) has a brief report on Stephen Meyer’s C4ID sponsored lecture (Stephen Meyer – 17th Nov).  This is the lecture that I didn’t attend last week (An evening with the Centre for Intelligent Design: why I didn’t attend).  Sounds like I didn’t miss much!  The writer begins by saying that pretty much everyone he know sin the Science Faith community was invited to the lecture.  He goes on to review the contents and the (anonymous) reaction of at least one senior attendee, before concluding:

I was hoping for a much better talk from so well known a speaker, but basically it boiled down to the incredulity argument coupled with a God of the gaps conclusion. The event reminded me of why I no longer bother to read any of the ID literature, and generally consider anyone who takes ID seriously as either being naive about science or alternatively a bit stupid.

Pretty much par for the course for the strategy of ID creationists, I’d say.

An evening with the Centre for Intelligent Design: why I didn’t attend.

Back in September, I received a plain envelope at my work address.  In it was an invitation to attend an event in Whitehall, London.  This invitation from Lord Mackay of Clashfern, was for an'”Evening lecture and supper with Dr Stephen Meyer”, which would feature a “careful presentation of the ‘fiendishly difficult’ problem of the origin of life and the evidence for intelligent design”, and was held on 17th November.  I’ve obscured my name from the image below (click the image for a larger version).

Interestingly, the front of the invitation was a little coy about the organisers.  It did surprise me that Lord Mackay, one of the more outstanding lawyers of the 20th Century (according to Wikipedia) would take an interest in intelligent design creationism.  But Lord Mackay was a member of the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland until a rumpus developed following his attendance at a Roman Catholic colleague’s funeral.  From Wikipedia:

Lord Mackay of Clashfern is also remembered for an incident when he, an elder of the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland, attended the funeral Masses of two close Roman Catholic friends. On one of these occasions, Lord Mackay attended in his role as Lord Advocate as the deceased was a member of the judiciary. This was considered a grave offence by the Free Presbyterian Church authorities and he was suspended from church office, bringing about a split and the formation of Associated Presbyterian Church in 1989, which supported greater “liberty of conscience”.

Notably, the triumvirate  behind C4ID hold strongly religious views, and at least one is a lay preacher.

All is made clear on the reverse of the invitation, where the Centre for Intelligent Design logo is prominently displayed.  And indeed the accompanying letter is headed with the C4ID logo.  All attendees are to be blessed with a copy of Meyer’s book ‘Signature in the Cell’.

Bizarrely (as you can see), the reverse of the invitation uses a piece of puffery from  Thomas Nagel, Professor of Law and Professor of Philosophy at New York University.  This, rather than being derived from an actual review of the book (which, it might be suggested, a Professor of Law and of Philosophy might not be best equipped to deliver) was actually Nagel’s submission to the Times Literary Supplement 2009 Books of the Year.

I haven’t read Meyer’s book, so receiving a copy would have been interesting.  I have, however, read a number of articles about the book, both supportive and dismissive (particularly those who take issue with Meyer’s (mis)use of information theory), together with a number of Meyer’s articles.  Most of these are un-refereed book chapters, though a recent review paper has appeared in the Biologic Institute house ‘journal’ BIO-Complexity (of which, more later in this article).  As an aside, the Discovery Institute has released a brief publication entitled ‘Signature of Controversy‘, which is a response to the many criticisms of Signature in the Cell and very largely figures the rather abusive and puerile writing of one David Klinghoffer.

It would seem that the topic of the lecture (entitled “Is there a signature in the cell?”) principally relates to the origins of life, and in particular, it would seem to relate to the difficulty Meyer has in understanding how the genetic code was able to arise in the first place.  Of course, once organisms with heritable genetic material were present on Earth, normal and well understood evolutionary processes would have given rise to the diversity of life on the planet.  I don’t suppose that is something Meyer subscribes to, since he is one of the principal architects (and an author) of the Wedge Strategy– the duplicitous strategy that aimed to supplant evolution with creationism by an extensive rebranding exercise.  The scheme came a little unstuck when the Dover school board in Pennsylvania, which was at the time influenced by creationists, attempted to force Intelligent Design into science classrooms.  The subsequent trial (Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District) ruled that Intelligent Design was a rebranding of creationism, that it was not a scientific approach and that teaching it in American schools was unconstitutiomal.  This judgement forced the Discovery Institute onto the back foot.  More recently, the Centre for Intelligent Design was established in the UK, based in Glasgow, apparently to regurgitate the DI line.

The Centre for Intelligent Design makes much of the supposition that only intelligence can bring about ‘information’.  Unfortunately from their point of view, increase (and decrease) in gene number and genome size are clearly observable, not only by comparative genomics studies of a wide variety of taxa, but by direct observation of within species genome variation. What’s more, those of us engaged in laboratory genetics are well aware of the kinds of genome changes that can occur even within the timescale of laboratory work.

In contrast to the ongoing efforts of science, one of the hallmarks of Intelligent Design creationism is that they don’t conduct novel research aimed at proving the existence of design.  How can they? – ID isn’t science and makes no testable predictions. What ID creationists do is to focus on individual cases where they assert evolutionary biology cannot explain how some feature arose (usually by claiming “irreducible complexity” or some such tosh) and claim that if evolution wasn’t responsible, intelligent design is the only alternative – a pretty dubious way of claiming evidence for ID.  Unfortunately for the likes of Michael Behe, each time one of these assertions is made, those pesky scientists come along and knock it down.  Examples include the bacterial flagellum and the vertebrate immune system.  The rather wonderful Nova TV documentary about Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District I linked to the other day (US TV Documentary – Judgment Day: Intelligent Design On Trial) demolishes those two canards of intelligent design creationism in a very accessible fashion.

From what I’d read of Meyer’s written output, it seemed likely that Meyer’s tack would be to claim that the probability of the appearance of a genetic code that enabled life to begin is so vanishingly small that it must have been designed.  What I have noted is a paper by Meyer (with his colleage  Paul A. Nelson) in the Biologic Institute house ‘journal’ BIO-Complexity.  The Biologic Institute is funded by the Discovery Institute and really fits the Wedge Strategy as an attempt to portray ID as a scientific discipline, largely by playing at science.  BIO-Complexity is an example: an apparently above-board journal website with quite specific aims:

BIO-Complexity is a peer-reviewed scientific journal with a unique goal. It aims to be the leading forum for testing the scientific merit of the claim that intelligent design (ID) is a credible explanation for life. Because questions having to do with the role and origin of information in living systems are at the heart of the scientific controversy over ID, these topics—viewed from all angles and perspectives—are central to the journal’s scope.

(I note that Kluwer, a respectable scientific publisher, originally planned a journal called Biocomplexity: its launch issue was cancelled due to a lack of submissions.  I don’t think this should be confused with the Biologic Institute creation.)  BIO-Complexity’s editorial board comprises a disparate collection of people who support Intelligent Design creationism or, it would seem in some cases, a more conventional young earth creationism.  To date, and through two years of publishing, only a handful of publications have been made.  And these are derived from members of the editorial board, and largely include members of the Discovery and Biologic Institutes (vanity publishing?).

Meyer and Nelson’s recent publication in BIO-complexity is really an objection to the work of Yarus and colleagues modelling how an RNA world could have come into being.  It’s not really a research paper, and kind of fits the ID strategy of knocking down science with the intention of allowing an ID ‘explanation’ to fill the gap.  This would be in keeping with Meyer and Nelson’s expertise (Meyer qualified as an earth scientist and has a PhD in Philosophy of science, while Nelson similarly has a PhD in Philosophy): Nelson appears in the past to have held young earth creationist views.

My particular scientific field is not related to the origins of life, and it’s always seemed to me that figuring out how life began on Earth is particularly challenging, especially as our understanding of likely pre-biotic conditions changes periodically. Nevertheless, the scientific approach is to try and figure out plausible hypotheses: if Meyer and Nelson have bona fide concerns about Yarus’ hypotheses, I’d be the last to censor them.  I’d be even happier if Meyer and Nelson had the science background sufficient to set up their own experimental programme.

An email communication from C4ID a week or so before the lecture said in part (the comment is mine):

At the request of some guests and to encourage open discussion, we wish to conduct the evening with a modification of the Chatham House Rule as follows:  Guests are free to report, formally or informally, on the content of the lecture, the nature of the issues raised at question time, and the identities of the host, lecturer and representatives of the Centre for Intelligent Design.  However the identities of all the other guests who attend and who may contribute to the debate should not be revealed unless specific permission is given by them to do so. [ It’s hard to see how the planned release of video recording of the event could avoid identifying attendees if they questioned the speaker] We thank you for respecting our wishes in this matter.

Quite what significance (if any) this holds I don’t know.  But one interpretation might be that attendance from individuals outside the obvious ID creationism circles was looking low, and the organisers felt this statement might encourage them to come along.  In the end, I chose not to attend, not because I have scientific objections to hearing Meyer’s message, but because I object to the Discovery Institute’s working methods, its deceptive Wedge strategy (of which Meyer is an author), and that attendance might be taken as offering support to ID creationism (despite C4ID’s intention that attendee identity be kept secret). I did not want to add apparent legitimacy to ID creationism my my attendance, even though my attendance would have been as a private individual rather than as a representative of my employer. Finally, I don’t believe that lectures delivered to lay audiences are the most effective way of communicating science (or, in the case of ID creationism, pseudoscience): I would much rather read the technical literature. Unfortunately, Intelligent Design creationists are unable to generate research of the kind that would find its way into the science literature.


C4ID still doesn’t understand science.

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?

C4ID comes out fighting, repeats tired old misrepresentations

C4ID’s Director Alastair Noble has come out fighting against proposals to legally prevent creationism in its many varieties being taught in school science classes.  His campaign, as ever, revolves around contributions to a variety of christian organs.  In the online christian magazine, Inspire, he has an article protesting against the proposal (Centre for Intelligent Design rejects ‘false claims’ of Dawkins and Attenborough).  [Note that while I can open that link using Firefox, Google Chrome cannot – at least on my computer]. As with many a christian website, commenting doesn’t appear to be possible.

With what appears to be a complete irony failure, Noble says:

“If this was about the integrity of science education,” says Dr Alastair Noble […], director of the Centre, “then they would be campaigning for students to have access to all the scientific evidence about evolution and origins – including the positive evidence for design in nature and the evidence both for and against evolution.

“Scientific theories are only credible if they take account of all the evidence. Science always moves on. The 30 scientists who have signed up to the ‘Evolution not Creationism’ statement are attempting to prevent students from hearing the rational, well-evidenced arguments that cast doubt on neo-Darwinism.”

Dr Noble is always portrayed as a scientist (he has a PhD in chemistry rather than a biological discipline), yet he appears not to understand how science works. Intelligent Design creationism is not a scientific approach.  It has no explanatory power.  It makes no testable predictions.  It fails at all points of a definition of a scientific activity.  He does say:

“Students also need to understand the provisional nature of the scientific consensus. Science is not done by consensus. Indeed, students should be aware that some crucial scientific discoveries were made by individuals who challenged the consensus. The reality of science is that one individual scientist with sound evidence can trump the consensus.”

Intelligent Design creationism has no scientific approach of collecting evidence and interpreting it in a way that generates explanatory hypotheses for further testing.  Its sole approach seems to be to identify specific individual cases where an ID proponent cannot see an evolutionary explanation, then proudly proclaiming that it must have been designed – “God did it” rephrased as “the Designer did it”. Unfortunately for Intelligent Design creationism, each and every case where such claims inferring design have ben debunked using evolutionary mechanisms to explain their origin, supported by a wealth of comparative biological data.

Another chemist (again, not a biologist) is quoted:

John Walton, Professor of Reactive Chemistry at the University of St Andrews, agrees: “There are many doubtful passages and leaps of faith in the molecules-to-man evolutionary narrative scenario. The authoritarian attempts by old generation scientists to suppress discussion of alternatives are ill-advised and go against the open spirit of enquiry science should foster.”

Leaps of faith!  My irony meter just leapt off scale. Walton’s language is amusing – he’s using the language of church here.  Yes, there are gaps in our understanding of the pre-biotic world (which actually doesn’t really fall within the purview of evolutionary biology).  But at least some scientists are trying to construct hypotheses that offer an investigative route into understanding chemical events that may have occurred billions of years in Earth’s history.  What do the likes of Noble and Walton offer?  Merely intellectual cowardice and a desire to invoke a supernatural entity.  And as an aside, who, or what is that entity?  It’s notable that with very rare exceptions, ID supporters are fervent christians.  Noble and his C4ID triumvirate are clearly active christians (Noble is a lay preacher) – why don’t they come off the fence and identify their god as the designer?

Noble’s closing line is

“Dawkins argues that ID should not be taken seriously because its main protagonists are theists,” says Dr Noble. “But we don’t hear him arguing that by the same token evolution should not be taken seriously because its main protagonists are atheists.”

I would strongly suggest Dawkins’ position is really that ID creationism should not be taken seriously because it is an entirely unscientific enterprise. One might recommend that those persuaded that ID creationism is science might take a look at Why Intelligent Design doesn’t cut it: A Primer.  Again in this context, there’s an interesting article by James Williams (a Lecturer in Science Education), written following what sounds like an exhausting series of interviews alongside Alastair Noble for BBC local radio (Intelligent Design Creationism is not Science ).  I strongly recommend this account of the interview and Noble’s failure to grasp the objectives of the Intelligent Design Wedge Strategy.

Footnote: Personally, I am uncomfortable with the notion of legal prohibition of the teaching of anti-science in science classes, but frankly the disinenguity of proponents of ID creationism makes such a proposition increasingly attractive.


Another ridiculous video from C4ID

Well, well, well, another publicity email for C4ID’s conference falls into my mailbox, bearing with it another link to a brief video by one of their speakers.

This time it’s Dr Geoff Barnard on “survival of the fertile”. This seems to be brief excerpt from a longer presentation, but since this is what C4ID have pushed out for us to look at, this is what I’ll look at.  Who is Geoff Barnard? The email from C4ID says:

Dr Geoff Barnard – a geneticist now based in Israel – is one of the conference speakers.

You can read Barnard’s web page at the University of Cambridge Veterinary School.  The BCSE wiki has this on Barnard:

Geoff Barnard is one of the leading advocates of young earth creationism to have been active in the last two decades.

Dr Geoff Barnard was a senior researcher at the Cambridge Veterinary school but is believed to have retired and is now living in Israel. To our knowledge he’s been involved in at least four British creationist organisations as well as the Euro Leadership organisation alongside Andy McIntosh.

He was a leading speaker in Genesis Agendum where he was also a trustee. He was a founding participant and trustee in Biblical Creation Ministries, the evangelising arm of the Biblical Creation Society. He’s been involved in Truth in Science and, as at November 2010, was helping with the launch of the Centre for Intelligent Design

However, surprisingly, he was not a signatory to the 2002 Estelle Morris letter. This was the letter which basically gave the game away that there was an interconnected freemasonary of young earth creationist activists in Britain.

There is a bio on him at [I note that the Creation Wiki entry on Geoff Barnard links to that AIG site, but has a photo that looks distinctly unlike the speaker in the C4ID video.  How many Geoff Barnards are there…]

C4ID also summarise the video’s message as: “Everybody knows that Darwinism is about the survival of the fittest – but is that circular claim actually the crux of the matter? ”  Interestingly, the origins of the phrase “Survival of the Fittest” do not lie with Darwin, but with Francis Galton.  As Wikipedia (Survival of the fittest) has it:

Survival of the fittest” is a phrase which is commonly used in contexts other than intended by its first two proponents: British polymath philosopher Herbert Spencer (who coined the term) and Charles Darwin.

Herbert Spencer first used the phrase – after reading Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species – in his Principles of Biology (1864), in which he drew parallels between his own economic theories and Darwin’s biological ones, writing, “This survival of the fittest, which I have here sought to express in mechanical terms, is that which Mr. Darwin has called ‘natural selection’, or the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life.”

Darwin first used Spencer’s new phrase “survival of the fittest” as a synonym for natural selection in the fifth edition of On the Origin of Species, published in 1869. Darwin meant it as a metaphor for “better adapted for immediate, local environment”, not the common inference of “in the best physical shape”. Hence, it is not a scientific description.

The phrase “survival of the fittest” is not generally used by modern biologists as the term does not accurately convey the meaning of natural selection, the term biologists use and prefer. Natural selection refers to differential reproduction as a function of traits that have a genetic basis. “Survival of the fittest” is inaccurate for two important reasons. First, survival is merely a normal prerequisite to reproduction. Second, fitness has specialized meaning in biology different from how the word is used in popular culture. In population genetics, fitness refers to differential reproduction. “Fitness” does not refer to whether an individual is “physically fit” – bigger, faster or stronger – or “better” in any subjective sense. It refers to a difference in reproductive rate from one generation to the next.

So, from the start, there is the usual deliberate misrepresentation, probably to set a straw man argument.  Additionally, the C4ID email goes on to say:

Geoff will carefully explain in his sessions at the conference on Saturday September 10th by reference to detailed biological considerations why he makes this claim. That evidenced claim has, as he says, ‘killer’ consequences for Darwinism.

Ah yes, the classic creationist usage of the word ‘Darwinism’, rather than the more appropriate ‘evolutionary biology’.  But I suppose for those of a religious bent, such as Noble et al of C4ID, referring to a bearded patriarchal authority figure comes rather more naturally than any reference to a century and a half of biological research spanning a multitude of disciplines, all providing evidence of evolution as both a fact and theory.  In the video Barnard says [my approximate transcript, so errors will be mine]:

It’s vital to maintain integrity of chromosomes.  Something to ponder. Follow the argument.

Shows a slide entitled “Something to ponder
– Meiosis cannot begin without synapsis and recombination
– Synapsis cannot happen without the maintenance of chromosomal integrity
– No meiosis – no sperm or egg
– No meiosis – no survival

Another slide:

– It is the survival of the fertile
– Maintenance of fertility requires maintenance of chromosomal integrity
– Maintenance of fertility and Darwinism are incompatible

He asks – Is it actually the survival of the fittest? Says “more accurately survival of the fertile”

Somewhat bizarrely, he then says “Doesn’t have a mechanism, folks.  Of course there’s variation but there’s a limit to common descent that will be measurable in genomics in due course”.

Quite an astonishing farrago.  I’ve no idea what came before this clip, but the video material is just so astonishingly bad, I am surprised C4ID circulated it.  Unless they didn’t expect those with a biology background to watch it (you can only view it at YouTube if you have the link – here it is.)  I can’t actually make much of this nonsense out.

Of course it’s vital to maintain chromosomal integrity (it’s what I research into).  To say that meiosis cannot begin without synapsis and recombination is a little odd, as synapsis and recombination are part of meiosis rather than a preceding stage. Maybe he’s making an argument from incredulity here.  It’s probably also true to say that meiosis can’t proceed without DNA replication, or adequate nutrition, or correct gonad development.  (And by the way, male Drosophila melanogaster manage their meiosis very well in the absence of recombination, so I doubt that recombination is an absolute requirement!)  So I imagine that the first slide shown here must relate to a prior statement on the importance of synapsis and recombination for the correct progression through meiosis.  The rest of the bullet points in the first slide are fairly obvious.

In the second slide we get a reference to survival of the fertile.  How odd.  The reality behind survival of the fittest is really that those organisms best suited to their environment (which includes other organisms) are most likely to contribute to the next generation (see the Wikipedia article).  This is the basis of natural selection (I’m ignoring chance effects such as genetic drift here).  Organisms with reduced fertility may or may not make a lesser contribution to the next generation – it’s a bit more complicated that Barnard would have us believe in this video clip, and there are other factors beyond just fertility that come into play.

Barnard’s closing lines are also a bit peculiar.  It’s not clear to me what he’s referring to as lacking a mechanism, nor what the basis is for his assertion there’s a limit to common descent.  And if the profusion of genome sequencing projects has achieved anything, it has been direct evidence supporting common descent.

It all makes me wonder if there will be any published output from this exciting conference.  On the other hand, the email’s closing sentence suggests they’re having a spot of bother recruiting attendees:

If you come yourself to the full weekend and bring one new person to the Conference for the same period, each will receive a free 2010 Oxford Conference DVD on arrival and signing up for our free e-bulletin

So maybe we’ll see video footage from the 2011 conference, though at a likely price tag of 20 quid a pop, I certainly won’t be rushing out to score one.

More wishful thinking from the Centre for Intelligent Design

It would seem that the critical scientific thinking so lacking among Intelligent Design creationism proponents is still absent over at the Centre for Intelligent Design.  An update to their website reports on a recent review paper in Nature (New research on protein folding demonstrates intelligent design).  The article is by Antony Latham, a GP on the Isle of Harris.  Latham has published a number of books and articles with a general theme opposing evolution.  We find a page at the Christian Medical Fellowship with a book review and an article; the abominably (and dishonestly) named website Truth in Science offers a review of his book The Naked Emperor: Darwinism Exposed; so it’s pretty clear where he stands.  In the usual way, here we have a non-scientist with christian religious leanings exhibiting the usual comprehension failure where the complexities of life are concerned.

The article referred to on the C4ID site is what looks like a pretty comprehensive review of the roles of molecular chaperones in ensuring proteins adopt a correct conformation following synthesis (Hartl et al (2011) Molecular chaperones in protein folding and proteostasis. Nature 475; 324-332 doi:10.1038/nature10317 – here’s the abstract – you’ll need a subscription to read the full article).

Latham’s take, as is usual with ID creationism, is that “this is all terribly complicated, I don’t understand how this could possibly have appeared naturally, so a designer must have done it”.  This is just intellectual cowardice, and differs from conventional creationist claptrap by merely replacing ‘god’ with ‘a designer’.  And let’s face it, for a member of the Christian Medical Fellowship, who can the ‘designer’ be if not the biblically described god?

I sometimes wonder whether scientists open themselves to this kind of thing.  I note from the abstract that:

[…] cells invest in a complex network of molecular chaperones, which use ingenious mechanisms to prevent aggregation and promote efficient folding.

Which does use language of design.  Of course (as I’ve pointed out before) scientists use analogy and metaphor to explain complicated concepts.  We are all exposed to concepts such as ‘information’, ‘code’, ‘transcription’, translation’ and the like as we learn about biology. It is the misuse of such terms as literal descriptors that is so common in the writing produced by ID creationists.