ICCE – Nessie, evolution and creationism in British schools

So here’s an interesting story (Creationist exams comparable to international A-levels, says Naric).  I’ve never heard of Naric before – it’s the National Recognition Information Centre, and is tasked with advising universities and employers on the rigour of lesser-known qualifications. Unfortunately it’s pronounced on the International Certificate of Christian Education (ICCE). One might have had alarm bells ringing at the mere title of that “qualification”, and really those alarm bells would be justified.

Naric has ruled that the ICCE is comparable to courses such as international A-levels. Unfortunately, one of the ICCE textbooks says:

“Have you heard of the ‘Loch Ness Monster’ in Scotland? ‘Nessie,’ for short has been recorded on sonar from a small submarine, described by eyewitnesses, and photographed by others. Nessie appears to be a plesiosaur.

“Could a fish have developed into a dinosaur? As astonishing as it may seem, many evolutionists theorize that fish evolved into amphibians and amphibians into reptiles. This gradual change from fish to reptiles has no scientific basis. No transitional fossils have been or ever will be discovered because God created each type of fish, amphibian, and reptile as separate, unique animals. Any similarities that exist among them are due to the fact that one Master Craftsmen fashioned them all.”

To anyone with a modicum of understanding, this is just appalling, and the fact that in 2009 we have schools teaching this rubbish to children is nothing short of scandalous. Oh, and did you know that apartheid was helpful to communities in South Africa because it “made it possible for each group to maintain and pass on their culture and heritage to their children”?

Appalling. And to think that there are 50 christian schools peddling this stuff.

Naric is funded by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (Mandelson’s empire, and the Department that oversees Universities) – but a Naric spokesman is quoted in the Guardian as saying that its remit did not cover the curriculum’s content. Which makes me wonder what sort of advice regarding the rigour of qualifications they are capable of providing.

Darwin’s impact on the 19th century artworld

There’s a nice audioslideshow at the BBC News site: Audio slideshow: Darwin’s Endless Forms.  It features images in an exhibition at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge.  If. like me, you’re unlikely to be able to visit the exhibition (which is open 16 June – 4 October 2009) , it’s an interesting narrated slideshow.

The Fitzwilliam Museum website’s worth visiting too.

Darwinius masillae – the BBC World Service gets it…

I switched on the radio this morning and fortuitously caught this morning’s edition of Science in Action.  The first item in the programme was Ida, the unlikely name given to Darwinius masillae, possibly the most over-hyped fossil in recent years (check my comments to my previous blog article for links to the growing controversy).

In the radio show, one of the authors of the paper speaks briefly, but is then followed by a series of contributors who basically say – while this is a spectacularly well-reserved fossil, no this isn’t quite as important as the media puffery would make out.  Steve Jones takes exception to the use of “missing link”.

You can listen to the show through BBC iPlayer (well, you can in the UK, and maybe elsewhere, given that this is the World Service) for the next week: Science in Action, Friday 22nd May (presumably I caught a repeat broadcast)..

Darwinius masillae

The news sites and blogs have reports of a new fossil found in Germany, a 47 million year old primate, named Darwinius masillae.  The quality of preservation of this fossil is extraordinary, and even reveals what its last meal was.  PZ Myers gives the lowdown at Pharyngula (Darwinius masillae).

Of course, there’s a major PR job going on about this – check out Ed Yong’s blog (Not Just Rocket Science – Darwinius changes everything) for a refreshing view.  John Wilkins (Evolving Thoughts –No, it’s not an ancestor either (probably)) questions statements that it’s the ancestor of all primates (he cites Science Daily).

The blogosphere’s pretty full of writing about Darwinius – some buys into the hype, others question it.  one thing’s for sure, it’s a damn fine fossil.  On the downside is the confusion the news coverage may engender in the public, with buzz-words/phrases like “missing link” and “oldest ancestor of humans” flying around.

I think the BBC News website (Scientists hail stunning fossil) strikes the correct balance with comments such as:

Dr Henry Gee, a senior editor at the journal Nature, said the term itself was misleading and that the scientific community would need to evaluate its significance.

The publication is accompanied by a David Attenborough fronted BBC TV programme!  (Makes my YouTube press release via the BBSRC look really rather puny!). If you’d like to read the paper, it is publishe din the open access journal PLoS One:

Franzen JL, Gingerich PD, Habersetzer J, Hurum JH, von Koenigswald W, et al. 2009 Complete Primate Skeleton from the Middle Eocene of Messel in Germany: Morphology and Paleobiology. PLoS ONE 4(5): e5723.doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0005723

Media Reaction to the BioLogos Foundation

I’ve been looking through the internet media for reactions to the launch of Francis Collins’ BioLogos Foundation, which I blogged about, politely (I hope) but unflatteringly, the other day (Theistic Evolution and the BioLogos Foundation).  As would be expected, these reflect the author’s own theistic or atheistic views, and in many cases a highly accommodationist approach. My own view is that BioLogos is scientifically flawed in many ways.

What’s interesting is the spread of opinion.  I’ve not so far seen commenters from the religious side of the debate who deplore the odd theist evolutionary slant.  In fact many people seem to be quite keen to see the Foundation carry out its accommodationist mission – often these opinions derive from the elevated status that Collins has acquired through his genetics and genome sequencing work.  I think this is dangerous.  The serious criticism comes from those of us for whom atheism follows directly from a scientific and evidence-based world view.

Jerry Coyne’s blog (Why Evolution is True) has featured several related articles which are highly critical of Collins and his bedfellows in BioLogos (for example the Templeton Foundation, who provided funding to help establish the BioLogos Foundation).  PZ Myers (Pharyngula) was where I noticed  reports of the launch of the BioLogos website, and has continued to blog on related issues, and of particular note is his argument against the Templeton Foundation (The Templeton conundrum).

The New Scientist magazine (which I confess I don’t pay much attention to, particularly since the “Darwin was Wrong” cover fracas) has weighed in with an article highly critical of the “god of quantum physics” stance evident at the BioLogos Website (Quantum arguments for God veer into mumbo-jumbo by Andy Coghlan). Quantum mechanics has the sort of buzz-words beloved of pseudosciences such as quack medicines like homeopathy.

To me, and to other scientists and commentators, Collins is straying into pseudo-scientific speculation simply to keep God in the earthly frame. Believing in God in the first place is by definition a leap of faith, and one that many scientists and many non-scientists are, after careful and reasonable thought, unwilling to take. For those who have trouble accepting that we’re a product of pure chance, there is the option of believing that God set everything in motion.

Larry Moran in his Sandwalk blog also touches on aspects of BioLogos (Theistic Evolution:How does God do it?), including the role of god in evolution – well worth reading, as are many of the comments there.

On the more pro-Collins side, we have Time magazine, which weighs in with an approving article, Helping Christians Reconcile God with Science, which I suppose reflects establishment belief that an eminent scientist is going to have seriosu views on subjects other than their own discipline.  Interestingly it seems to me to reinfoce a deep problem with theistic views and the BioLogos accommodationist stance: if there is a god, why are these guys so sure it’s the god of the christian bible?  As I noted in my blog article, there’s a deep christian odour through the theistic nonsense that pervades the BioLogos site.  What’s notable in this brief article is the lack of any counter-opinion.  The article finishes with a quotation from Collins:

“Science can’t be put together with a literalist interpretation of Genesis,” he continues. “For one thing, there are two different versions of the creation story” — in Genesis 1 and 2 — “so right from the start, you’re already in trouble.” Christians should think of Genesis “not as a book about science but about the nature of God and the nature of humans,” Collins believes. “Evolution gives us the ‘how,’ but we need the Bible to understand the ‘why’ of our creation.”

I do think Collins, with all his christian belief, is missing an important point here – that there may well be no “why” at all.

The Salvo Magazine (which I’d never heard of before) blog says (Francis Collins and The BioLogos Foundation):

He is attempting to answer very sincere and obvious questions that aren’t even being asked by much of the scientific community. I’m sure he is going to draw heavy fire from those whose very definition of science rules out even the possibility of God.

Salvo’s agenda is clear from their “about” link, and they do seem to publish material by individuals rather sympathetic to a creationist worldview. I suppose being backed by The Fellowship of St James (for Christ, Creed and Culture) somwhat gives their game away.  But they are correct, Collins’ site is drawing heavy fire, but from those who aren’t driven by a bizarre belief system to need to question the scientific evidence.

The GeoChristian blog (The BioLogos Foundation) has an interesting slant, in which the author says:

I’m excited about this because of the stature of Collins in the scientific community and because I see the need for both good science and good theology to counteract young-Earth creationism in the church on the one hand, and irrational atheism among scientists on the other hand.

Here’s an accommodationist view in which “good science” and “good theology” should combine to counteract YEC, possibly the most ridiculous form of creationism.  The problem with BioLogos is that it’s bad science and, I suspect, also bad theology (though, not being a theologist, I would bow to correction!).  The blogger talks of “irrational atheism” – which is quite some non-sequitur really.  The rational approach is to require evidence before belief.

The KHdN – Kenneth Hynek (dot Net) blog says (“Faith and science both lead us to truth about God and creation.”)

And it’s especially nice to see that quite a lot of thought has been put into their Questions section; I’ll have to go through it more thoroughly, but I like what I’ve been seeing thus far in my cursory forays into it.

I’m not sure a great deal of thought has been put into the Questions (or more accurately the answers to the questions).  Many seem to me to be pretty vacuous.  Of course Kenneth is approving of Collins’ stance regarding the validity of the bible, so accommodationism is going sit well with him.

A final note:  it’s quite evident from the BioLogos Foundation web page that they are resolutely christian in outlook.  This, of course, presents a logical flaw, as I don’t see how one Invisible Magic Friend is in any way better supported than any other.  This is reflected in the Google search I carried out: I’ve not seen any blog responses that offer an islamic or jewish opinion.

Melanie Phillips displays scientific ignorance…twice

Melanie Phillips has in my opinion dug herself into a bit of a hole over the last few days, writing an opinion piece in The Spectator (Creating an insult to intelligence) concerning Intelligent Design (a subject she does seem ill-equipped to comment on), and after it got rather rubbished (by people who are better qualified), a lengthy follow-up also published in the Spectator (The secular inquisition). In the first article, Phillips is somewhat exercised by those who claim that ID is merely creationism in disguise – in particular a Radio 4 interview with Ken Miller, in which:

Miller referred to a landmark US court case in 2005, Kitzmiller v Dover Area School District, which did indeed uphold the argument that Intelligent Design was a form of Creationism in its ruling that teaching Intelligent Design violated the constitutional ban against teaching religion in public schools. But the court was simply wrong, doubtless because it had heard muddled testimony from the likes of Prof Miller.

Phillips goes on to define creationism as follows:

Creationism, whose proponents are Bible literalists, is a specific doctrine which holds that the earth was literally created in six days.

Of course, those of us used to dealing with fundie dimwits are aware that this merely described Young Earth Creationism. There’s a whole spectrum of creationist belief, including Francis Collins’  BioLogos, which is a rehashed theistic evolution. But what of ID? Of ID, Phillips says:

Intelligent Design, whose proponents are mainly scientists, holds that the complexity of science suggests that there must have been a governing intelligence behind the origin of matter, which could not have developed spontaneously from nothing.

So, here we have a definition that really describes a creation event. Indeed Phillips goes on to write:

The confusion arises partly out of ignorance, with people lazily confusing belief in a Creator with Creationism.

That doesn’t seem to me to be a lazy confusion. ID proponents do invoke a creator in the world-view. Indeed the Kitzmiller v Dover case clearly blew apart the claims of ID proponents that ID was indeed a scientific approach. In fact ID cannot make testable scientific proposals, because in the end, a supernatural entity is responsible. Phillips winds up with this:

On Today, Humphrys perfectly reasonably pressed Miller further. If ID was merely a disguised form of Creationism, he asked, why were so many intelligent people prepared to accept ID but not Creationism? Miller replied:

Intelligent people can sometimes be wrong.

Indeed; and it is Prof Miller who is wrong. Creationism and Intelligent Design are two completely different ways of looking at the world; and you don’t have to subscribe to either to realise the untruth that is being propagated — and the wrong that is being done to people’s reputations — by the pretence that they are connected.

Actually, intelligent people can be wrong. Phillips may well be intelligent, but it would seem that on scientific issues she is woefully undereducated. A quick squizz at Wikipedia reveals not only that her higher education was in English at St Anne’s College, Oxford, but that she’s been involved in other scientific controversies. She apparently perpetuates the MMR-autism myth (earning the wrath of Dr Ben Goldacre, who is said to have called her “the MMR sceptic who just doesn’t understand science”) and is a global warming denialist.  So, should we take her views as to the scientific nature of ID seriously? I suggest not.

A number of bloggers have taken her to task over this article, notably Jerry Coyne, author of the excellent “Why Evolution is True” (a book, incidentally, that Phillips should read, if she’s not done so already), who blogged (UK columnist defends intelligent design) a brief but heavy criticism. In response to that article and others, Phillips came out fighting, with the second Spectator article, and one that’s even longer than the first, but even less convincing. It’s this article that really reveals the depths of Phillips ignorance. Classic misapprehensions abound:

So what’s the big hullabaloo about? ID proponents are said by the Charles Johnsons of this world to deny evolution. But this is not so. Creationists deny evolution. But ID proponents say over and over again they are not Creationists and accept many aspects of evolution, in particular that organisms develop and change over time.

What they don’t accept is that random, blind-chance evolution accounts for the origin of all species and the origin of life, the universe and everything. ID proponents say the idea that science can account for everything – the doctrine known variously as materialism or scientism – flies in the face of reason and evidence and seeks to commandeer the space previously reserved for the unknowable, or religion, which can sit very comfortably alongside science, as it does for so many. [my emphasis]

Well, actually, evolution isn’t “random blind-chance”, as any biology student would know, and evolution does not concern “the origin of life, the universe and everything”. Phillips later writes:

ID is thus a paradox. The whole point is that it states that the ‘intelligent designer’ it posits as the only logical inference from scientifically verifiable complexity cannot be known through scientific means. This is because the essence of the ID idea is that there is a limit to science beyond which it cannot go, since science cannot prove nor disprove the existence of God nor any kind of ‘ultimate designer’ of the universe which thus stands outside that universe and its laws. That is where science stops and faith begins.

OK, so there we have it, clearly stated by Melanie Phillips – Intelligent Design is not science. Can she now accept that she has been pontificating about something she doesn’t know about or understand? Well, sort of:

To repeat – I have no particular brief for ID. I am not in a position to judge whether its arguments about ‘irreducible complexity’ and the logic of intelligent design are soundly based or not. But I do know that the attempt to shut down this debate runs against every principle of rationality and scientific freedom; and that the claim that it is rooted not in science but in religious fundamentalism is a falsehood designed to smear and intimidate people into silence.

Phillips clearly isn’t in a position to judge ID on its scientific merits. She shouldn’t have written the first article, let alone dig herself deeper with the second.  Jerry Coyne’s latest response can be found at his blog (Poor beleaguered Melanie Phillips!). He finishes with this line “On the other head, maybe she’s just ignorant and biased, like the Inquisitors themselves.” On the evidence of these two articles, I’m inclined to agree.

Theistic Evolution and the BioLogos Foundation

{{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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Ken Miller on God, Darwin and Intelligent Design

Here’s an upcoming interesting lecture at the Faraday Institute in Cambridge:

God, Darwin and Intelligent Design

American evolutionary science expert Professor Ken Miller will give a talk next Tuesday about the increasing support of the anti-evolutionary Intelligent Design movement at the Faraday Institute’s termly public lecture.

“Professor Miller will argue that the popularity of this movement, which is pitted against Darwinian evolution, points to a profound failure on the part of the scientific community to articulate its own message effectively,” said Katie Turnbull, Communications Officer at the Faraday Institute. “He believes that analysing the appeal of this concept is central to developing an understanding of why evolution is still resisted a century and a half after the publication of On the Origin of Species.”

The lecture is free and open to everyone. It takes place at on Tuesday 28 April, 5.30pm in the Queen’s Lecture Theatre, Emmanuel College. The lecture will be followed by free refreshments and a chance to meet the speaker and browse the bookstall.

I don’t know whether it’ll be webcast; I know I’ll be unlikely to be able to make it on Tuesday, which is a shame – I’ve read about Ken Miller in the blogosphere.

More moves to teach creationism in UK schools?

In a disappointingly titled article in New Statesman (Make space for creationists to have their say), Sophie Elmhirst reports that English schools are facing pressure to include creationism in science classes.  This, of course, follows similar moves in Hampshire which I blogged about recently.  The article does present both sides of the argument, but does I feel come over a bit sympathetic to the cause of the creationists. However, Terry Sanderson of the National Secular Society gets his oar in

The secularists, not surprisingly, are furious. “Talk about a misnomer,” says Terry Sanderson, president of the National Secular Society, of Truth in Science. “I get very angry about this organisation, which is introducing into people’s minds that there is some equivalence between creationism and evolution as scientific topics. There isn’t an equivalence – one is religion and one is science. They’re not the same thing.” He believes the problem goes back to the core of religious teaching in Britain. RE is the only subject that, despite being compulsory, is controlled by local authorities, not by the National Curriculum. What students are taught, and how those lessons might overlap with science teaching, is down to the local education authority under the guidance of the Standing Advisory Council for Religious Education, made up of local faith leaders and councillors. It is such councils that worry Sanderson: “They are often taken over by very enthusiastic religious people – they’re almost all clerics. It’s inevitable that they will try to push the boundaries of religious education into proselytising.”

The issue should be clear to any responsible educator.  Creationism is a religious doctrine, for which there is absolutely no evidence.  Evolution is science, and is supported by huge quantities of evidence.  There is no place for creationism in science classes.

Unfortunately, and in contrast to the USA, the UK has an established church so in my mind there’s not such a clear separation of church and state here.  Educators in the UK need to be very vigilant against the intrusion of religion into science classes.

Creationist ruse fails in Texas?

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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