Wrestling the oiled serpent

Understanding the Earth’s biodiversity is not just about knowing where organisms are currently found, their interactions and community structure, and the threats to them and how they can be conserved.  It is also about understanding the evolutionary origins of that biological diversity.  With this in mind I was interested to read a number of news reports over the last few weeks about the relationship between science and religion, including a piece on a debate between scientists and theologians on the origin of the universe, and the removal of a young Earth creationist perspective in an exhibition about the formation of the Giant’s Causeway.

Whilst religious and scientific views of the universe are not necessarily incompatible, literal interpretations of the origin of the world and its biodiversity are clearly at odds with our understanding of the diversification of life through evolutionary processes.  Reading these reports brought back memories (not all of them positive) of an event I was involved in a few years ago.

Back in 2006, Northamptonshire Creation Group (motto: “Let true science speak” [sic]) approached our former Vice-Chancellor with the suggestion that the University of Northampton might care to put forward a speaker to debate creationist versus the evolutionary world views with a prominent Australian creationist who was undertaking a fairly high profile lecture tour of the UK that year.  I was asked if I was interested in taking part and agreed because I have a long-standing interest in creationist arguments.  One of my main research areas, the ecology and evolution of plant-pollinator interactions, is claimed by some to be one of those (supposedly) wonderful examples of how God has created precise interactions between species which could not possibly have evolved.

Richard Dawkins and others have argued that scientists should not be engaging in such debates  as this because it gives creationists publicity and a credence that they do not deserve.  However my perspective has always been that creationists are not going to go away and their influence on school curricula, for example, needs to be tackled head on.

This debate, in front of an audience of about 200 members of the public, colleagues and students, was undoubtedly the most difficult thing I’ve ever had to do professionally:  we were each given 15 minutes to present our case and that is a very short space of time in which to summarise 200 years of scientific research supporting the validity of the evolutionary world view.  But I gave it my best shot and pointed out at the end of the quarter hour that, had I more time, there was so much more evidence I could have presented, evidence which supports the evolutionary hypothesis.

Hopefully, I went on,  I’d convinced some of the audience of the validity of that way of viewing the world and the life it sustains, though I didn’t imagine that I’d changed my opponent’s worldview.  He was clearly a man of great energy and commitment to his cause to have sustained his point of view for 30 years.  But I wished for his sake that he’d not wasted that energy on a debate which was over long ago. which in fact Charles Darwin thought was finished when he died in 1882.

Rather than squabble over the source of biological diversity, I continued, I would rather that these creationists spent their time and energy on trying to save biodiversity.  Human activity has put enormous pressure on the species with which we share this planet and whole ecosystems are being dramatically altered even as we argued that night.  If creationists really care about God’s creation of life, why are they not furious at the way humanity treats it?  Why are they not directing their passion towards saving it?

I thanked the audience for their time and attention and passed the floor to my opponent.  What followed was not the evidence based “creation science” [sic] I was expecting (having researched his previous claims on the subject of the Earth’s age, etc.) but a rapid-fire delivery of theological arguments.  Over those 15 minutes I counted 50 PowerPoint slides, a Biblical smoke and mirrors approach to arguing evolution.  Interestingly, it was clear when he was loading up his presentation that he had about 8 different “Northampton lecture” that he could choose from, depending upon the tack that I took.  Had I gone for a theological approach to the debate, he would have argued “science” I am sure.

After our presentations we had an opportunity to ask one another one question before it was opened up to the audience.  The question that was addressed of me is one that to this day I don’t really understand.  To paraphrase he asked:

“Can you provide a single example of a species which has evolved into another species, without reference to the assumption that evolution has already occurred”

The second half of the question really made no sense to me and perhaps was designed to throw me off.  It worked: I asked my opponent to explain the question and received some heckling from nearby creationists who accused me of being evasive.  But he clarified his question: what he was really asking was, could I provide examples of species evolving recently.  I talked about antibiotic resistance in bacteria, insects which are now immune to pesticides, and also mentioned peppered moth evolution.  Then the debate was opened up to questions from the floor and the first thing I was asked (by a smirking creationist) was what the peppered moths had changed into: other moths or something different?  I explained the difference, in timescales and outcome, of microevolution and macroevolution.  But that was lost on him.

There was also a question about why peacocks and other species were so beautiful, if not for human enjoyment?  I spoke about sexual selection but my opponent countered that sweet peas in his garden were never visited by bees because they self fertilise, so why are they still attractive?  I suggested he grow some different Lathyrus species, ones which had not been selectively bred by people.

So it went on, trading example for example, neither side giving any ground, until we ran out of time .

The woman who asked me the question about beauty happened to be of Afro-Caribbean descent, and came up to me afterwards when the formal debate had ended.  She forcefully asked how I could support a theory which, according to her, stated that “black people are closer to apes and therefore lower on the evolutionary ladder than white people”.  I firmly explained that evolution says nothing about racism and “Darwinian” arguments about racial superiority were a later bastardisation of Darwin’s original ideas.  But to no avail:  the woman “knew” Darwin was a racist; everyone in her church knew that.

Another post-debate exchange with a creationist went something like:

Him:  Darwin states in Origin of Species that the fossil record was insufficient to support his ideas.

Me:  That was 150 years ago.

Him: Yes, but Darwin said it.

Me: But that was 150 years ago; as I showed, we have acquired an enormous amount of new fossil data since then.

Him:  But Darwin said it and he’s the father of evolution.

Me: But he was only one scientist and that was 150 years ago.

Him: But Darwin said it.

Etc. etc. etc.  Darwin seems to have an almost mythic, bogey-man status amongst creationists, as if everything he wrote HAS to be true and if it’s false then evolution is not true.  A weird interpretation of how science works.

At the end of the evening I went home exhausted and not a little depressed.  Wine was drunk and the evening dissected and I wrote up some notes about the event, including the title of this blog.  That phrase struck me as a suitably Biblical description of trying to have rational arguments with creationists: well greased serpents will always have a way of squirming out of the grip of logic and evidence, whilst throwing distracting coils around your limbs.  I don’t regret taking part in the debate but I’m not in a hurry to do another.

10 thoughts on “Wrestling the oiled serpent

  1. Marco

    Good job, Jeff. I have had similar debates, but only in private, as I am the only infidel in my whole Christian family, which includes some cousins who are home-grown pseudoscientists. Because of this background, I have always refused to carry out this kind of debate in public, except for classes in the university. Creationists are not really open to discussion: they are 100% sure about their opinions and just want to humiliate evolutionists in front of the largest possible audience, so they can save more souls from the perils of doubt and free-thought. I´m against welcoming them in universities, as no scientist is welcome in any church.

    1. jeffollerton Post author

      Thanks Marco. As I say, it’s a difficult one to judge and engaging in debate really can only be the decision of individual scientists. What concerns me is if the religious right in the USA, for example, influences like minded politicians who can bring their power to bear on issues around school curricula, etc. If we just ignore such abuses are we not guilty of complicity? Perhaps it’s how we defend science which is the important consideration and public debates may not be the best approach. I don’t imagine I’ll ever do it again!

      1. Marco

        You were very brave to accept this duel. You are absolutely right: we cannot remain silent, because the religious extremists are advancing very quickly. I only think that the best arena is not the university; in this matter, Dawkins is right, they do not deserve this kind of spotlight. Fundamentalists should be fought in the press, in public sessions of the chamber of deputies etc. Here in Brazil they try continuously to push their agenda, which includes creationist classes in the Biology curriculum, religious classes in public schools, gay cure, and so on.

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  3. Darryl Smith

    “There was also a question about why peacocks and other species were so beautiful, if not for human enjoyment? I spoke about sexual selection”

    There was a 2008 study which has found that the colourful tail feathers on peacocks offer no mating advantage. There is a large amount of evidence contradicting the idea of sexual selection.

    What is the alternative? You can read about it, in the book “The Genial Gene: Deconstructing Darwinian Selfishness” by ecologist and evolutionary biologist Joan Roughgarden. She lists 26 phenomena which cannot be explained by sexual selection. Instead she presents a new theory called “social selection” which is all about cooperation. Very interesting stuff and you can easily find her papers on the internet.

    Here is Roughgarden on her theory:

    “I suggest that we replace sexual-selection theory with a new approach that I call social selection theory. I argue that reproductive social behavior, including mate choice and family organization, can be completely explained by focusing solely on the direct ecological benefits each individual obtains from the interactions it has with others. Indirect genetic benefits can be ignored; they don’t realistically factor into mating decisions at all.

    Social selection theory proposes that every animal has a time budget for its social interactions. Each animal interacts with others in ways that improve the number of offspring he or she can successfully rear. Animals may pursue their most beneficial course by acting independently or by acting together in teams, but usually in teams. From a group’s many instantaneous decisions as to whom to associate with and what actions to perform with one another, a unique social system emerges for each species in each ecological situation.

    In social selection, cooperation is purchased when animals barter for control of reproductive opportunities. One morph of fish, say the large controller-gender of blue-gill sunfish, is programmed to breed after five years. The fish may die during this time, but if he survives, he will be big enough to control territory in which females lay eggs. This fish can offer fertilization of the eggs laid in his territory as a payment to smaller, shorter-lived cooperator morphs. Cooperators provide services such as helping to attract female visitors to a territory or keeping the territory clean, while the big controller rebuffs neighboring large males.

    This kind of bartering and team play is the subject of cooperative game theory, a branch of mathematics with theorems tracing to John Nash (the Princeton economist made famous in the recent movie “A Beautiful Mind”). Cooperative game theory also predicts the emergence of cooperative coalitions. Family structures such as monogamy, polygyny, and polyandry can be considered the outcomes of a cooperative game. Players weigh the direct benefits they can obtain while making choices about whom to associate with. Achieving cooperative solutions requires coordinated actions and staying in close contact. Same-sex sexuality and intimacies such as grooming and tongue-touching evolved to help animals stay in touch with each other’s condition and intentions. This knowledge helps them work together as a team.

    In social selection, the expensive tail on a peacock does not seduce a peahen. Instead, that tail is primarily a badge that earns the peacock membership in male power-holding cliques. In social selection, secondary sex characteristics like the peacock’s tail are more important for same-sex power dynamics than for between-sex romance. Such traits are used to secure admission to resource-controlling coalitions and must be expensive to ensure exclusivity. They are not signs of genetic quality advertised to females. Such traits may indeed connote physiological health and good condition, but this indicates a male’s ability to offer direct benefits to a female rather than his genetic quality. She should choose a male displaying good condition not because he has high quality genes, but because she will be able to raise more, not “better,” offspring by mating with him.”


    The Myth of Sexual Selection (see link for the full article):


    Would be interesting to see your comments on this.

    1. jeffollerton Post author

      Thanks Darryl, I was sort of aware of Roughgarden’s ideas on this but hadn’t read much about them I have to confess. I’ll have to get her book. But in any case her arguments are firmly evolutionary in nature rather than being creationist.

      1. Darryl Smith

        Jeff, I am in agreement about the fact of evolution, we can see it has happened from the fossil record and geological strata clearly showing a progression of different life forms over hundreds of millions of years. The twin nested hierarchies of morphology and genomics also demonstrate the relationship of every living species to every other species through common ancestry. Of course there’s also evidence from things like dendrochronology that tree trunks are as old as 13,000 years (or older?) this refutes the idea of young earth creationism.
        Geology and plate tectonics tell us about land masses and their movement over billions of years and biogeography shows us how new species only arise near very similar species. All this evidence is impossible to fit in with religious creationism. I am not very knowledgeable on genetics but I am yet to see how a creationist can explain endogenous retroviruses which have been found in the genome, this is clear evidence for common descent, and again I can’t see how this evidence can fit into a creationist model. Of course there is also compelling evidence that mitochondria and chloroplasts were once primitive bacterial cells (endosymbiotic theory) and in homology or related fields via evidence for atavisms and vestigial structures etc which show evidence for common descent not creationism. There are 100s of cases of observed speciation on record. The list goes on and on, there are many scientific fields showing evidence for evolution from everything from botany to palaeontology, I really don’t have time to keep up with it all.

        My criticism is not of evolution, but some of the mechanisms which have been proposed to explain it. As you know a scientific hypothesis must be testable and falsifiable (creationism fails here). But so does natural selection. I do not deny that selection occurs, but I do not think we should teach this as an important “evolutionary process” like the modern synthesis does. The concept of Natural Selection does not have its origin in biology, but in Social Science (Herbert Spencer coined the term “survival of fittest”, and before that Malthus and Adam Smith)… natural selection is materially empty and explains nothing because it explains everything; it should not be treated as a scientific theory, it;s tautological basis has been noted by many scientists. If you are open to this topic, perhaps I can email you something about it. Thanks.

  4. jeffollerton Post author

    Just to pick up on two points:

    Why does natural selection fail as a testable hypothesis? It is possible to measure selection gradients in nature showing the effect of natural selection on a character. Natural selection is eminently testable.

    Secondly, I’ve seen this notion that “natural selection….explains nothing because it explains everything” stated before and it makes no sense to me. First of all, it does not try to explain everything as many evolutionary biologists have noted – there’s also drift, epigenetic effects, etc. But even if it did try to “explain everything” why is that a bad thing? Is it wrong to look for universal laws?

  5. Pingback: Carnival of Evolution, March 2013 « Nothing in biology makes sense!

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