Category Archives: Creationism

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.

Flattery Gets You Nowhere (reduce, reuse, recycle part 1)

It was always my intention, when I began this blog, to use it as a vehicle to rework and reuse scraps of writing I’ve done over the years that had no real “official” outlet .  Hence the subtitle of this posting.  The following is a book review I wrote on the Amazon website in 2007, after I had read Christine Garwood’s book Flat Earth: The History of an Infamous Idea.  It’s a really interesting and well written piece of science history that gives a perspective to science that goes far beyond the immediate topic area of cranky ideas.  I have to confess to a potential bias: the author is a friend of mine.  But that doesn’t make the review any less genuine: if I’d not enjoyed the book I’d have kept quiet!

The pathways through which the history of scientific progress can be mapped are strewn with the remains of overturned ideas and outdated pronouncements, some cranky and (with hindsight) nonsensical, others perfectly reasonable given the state of knowledge at the time. Newtonian physics, though sensible at the human scale, suddenly fails to convince at a subatomic level, not because of any failings on the part of Newton, but because technological and mathematical advances have allowed modern physicists to probe closer and deeper.

Similarly, in biology, many established taxonomic ideas concerning the evolutionary relationships between major groups of flowering plants, mammals and other large clades are, thanks to molecular phylogenetics, shown to be erroneous. And so science advances, from the clearly wrong to the (probably) correct, leaving in its wake the cast off ideas of previous generations.  Except sometimes, when science (or at least fringe perceptions of scientific understanding) takes a backwards stride of such length that one begins to question whether scientific “facts” mean the same thing to everyone.

The concept of the Flat Earth may be a unique example of how a fact (the globularity of the Earth) could be established very early in the development of the rational analysis of nature, only to be rejected by a minor, but vociferous, cohort of “true believers”.  As this fascinating book by Christine Garwood relates, observations by Aristotle confirmed the true shape of the world, and there were no serious challenges to this idea until the 19th century.  Mediaeval scholars accepted a spherical Earth (disc-shaped mappae mundi, I was interested to learn, were symbolic, not cartographic, in intention) and the fears raised by the prospect of Columbus plunging over the edge of the world were a nineteenth century fiction concocted by the author Washington Irving.

The emergence of Flat Earth views in Victorian England as a serious (at least to their promoters) attack on received scientific wisdom has to be seen as an unusual reverse in thinking, not least because the “Zetetic” Flat Earthers sought to use science against itself to accumulate evidence to support the idea of the Earth as a plane, not a planet. In this vivid and well researched account, Christine Garwood moves easily between historical scholarship and popular science to follow the development of Flat Earth thinking from its rejection by the Ancient Greeks through to its Victorian revival, when learned men as distinguished as Alfred Russell Wallace could be convinced to take part in parochial experiments along England’s canal system to try to prove that the Earth was a globe. Darwin, Huxley and others saw little value in rising to the Zetetics’ bait, and Wallace himself regretted his involvement in later years (but seems to have needed the cash at the time).

As the author demonstrates, the death of the early major movers in the sphere of Flat Earth promotion was followed by the emergence of other, equally committed and frequently just as eccentric personalities, until eventually popular support for the notion of a Flat Earth ebbed away with the first manned space flights, and the photographs and experiences which were returned to Earth. Flat Earthism did not entirely die, however, and no amount of “proof” could dissuade the opinion of zealots such as Samuel Shenton, founder of the International Flat Earth Research Society. Like fundamentalists of all persuasions, he had an answer for everything, however contrived and paranoid.

In Garwood’s thought provoking book our understanding of the development of fringe ideas in the history of science is advanced through an analysis of the primary sources relating to an intriguing subject. The book is scholarly but accessible, at once entertaining and authoritative, and also topical in the context of the increasingly widespread anti-evolutionary views promoted by some religious groups. Unsurprisingly Garwood finds parallels between Creationism and Flat Earth thinking, not least because until recently they were promoted by groups with similar world views and memberships.

Flat Earth ideas continued to be advanced in the late 1960s and early 1970s, as both an academic jest with serious anti-establishment overtones by the International Flat Earth Society of Canada, and as a continuation of Zetetic thinking by other groups. Currently these ideas are defunct and even the most literal of Biblical literalists reject the notion, making it unlikely to re-emerge. Even if it did, no modern scientist would risk credibility by debating it.

Creationism is a different matter entirely and some professional scientists (myself included) have opted to debate with Creationists despite the views of (amongst others) Steve Jones and Richard Dawkins that such exposure only provides oxygen for their cause. Unlike the Flat Earth theorists, however, anti-evolutionists are not simply going to fade away and their influence is now felt in American classrooms and textbooks. How should scientists respond? With reasoned arguments that convince the public and politicians (if not the fundamentalists, who can believe what the hell they like as far as we’re concerned) or by ignoring them and hoping they might disappear in their own infighting?

Both Flat Earthism and Creationism reflect wider social and attitudinal differences regarding the role of Homo sapiens in nature: as rapacious exploiter; or careful steward of the Earth; or as an ecosystem component in its own right. Science can provide data and theories and models, but it is up to individuals how they choose to interpret and act on such information, or whether they decide to deride or ignore it. Christine Garwood’s first book is a marvellous insight into just how deeply self-delusional beliefs can become embedded in the minds of intelligent, but blinkered, individuals, and it is hoped that her subsequent books examine these themes in more detail. Perhaps her successors 200 years in the future will be similarly taken to write about the incredulous movement that denied that Earth’s climate was changing and that the human species was fundamentally altering the biosphere through pollution and over-exploitation of resources, despite the weight of data. And let us hope that we still have a society that can appreciate the irony.