NTS LogoSkeptical News for 20 September 2008

Archive of previous NTS Skeptical News listings


Saturday, September 20, 2008

Evolution education update: September 19, 2008

The Royal Society of London is in an uproar over comments made by their director of education, and the Alliance for Science announces its 2009 essay contest.

ROYAL SOCIETY FUROR OVER CREATIONISM

The director of education for the Royal Society of London, Michael Reiss, resigned from his position on September 16, 2008, in the wake of a controversy occasioned by his recent remarks on creationism. According to a September 16, 2008, press release from the Royal Society, "Some of Professor Michael Reiss's recent comments, on the issue of creationism in schools, while speaking as the Royal Society's Director of Education, were open to misinterpretation. While it was not his intention, this has led to damage to the Society's reputation. As a result, Professor Reiss and the Royal Society have agreed that, in the best interests of the Society, he will step down immediately as Director of Education."

Reiss's remarks were apparently offered during the British Association for the Advancement of Science's Festival of Science, which took place September 6-11, 2008, in Liverpool; he subsequently posted a corresponding essay, "Science lessons should tackle creationism and intelligent design," on the Guardian's science blog on September 11, 2008. In the latter, Reiss posed the question, "What should science teachers do when faced with students who are creationists?" and answered that "when teaching evolution, there is much to be said for allowing students to raise any doubts they have (hardly a revolutionary idea in science teaching) and doing one's best to have a genuine discussion."

Reiss added, "The word 'genuine' doesn't mean that creationism or intelligent design deserve equal time." He was also careful to note that whether such a discussion would be appropriate depends "on the comfort of the teacher in dealing with such issues and the make-up of the student body," adding, "I don't believe that such teaching is easy." Nevertheless, he insisted, "I do believe in taking seriously and respectfully the concerns of students who do not accept the theory of evolution, while still introducing them to it. While it is unlikely that this will help students who have a conflict between science and their religious beliefs to resolve the conflict, good science teaching can help students to manage it -- and to learn more science."

Unfortunately, the content of Reiss's message was distorted and sensationalized in the British media. For example, the Times of London's story (September 12, 2008) was headlined "Leading scientist urges teaching of creationism in schools," and began, "Creationism should be taught in science classes as a legitimate point of view, according to the Royal Society, putting the august science body on a collision course with the Government"; the Telegraph's story (September 11, 2008) was similarly headlined "Creationism should be taught in science classes, says expert," and subheaded, "The theory of creationism should be taught alongside evolution in school science lessons, a leading biologist and education expert has said."

The Royal Society observed in a September 12, 2008, press release that "The Royal Society is opposed to creationism being taught as science," citing the 2006 Interacademy Panel statement (PDF) on the teaching of evolution, to which the Royal Society is a signatory. It also quoted a clarification from Reiss: "Creationism has no scientific basis. However, when young people ask questions about creationism in science classes, teachers need to be able to explain to them why evolution and the Big Bang are scientific theories but they should also take the time to explain how science works and why creationism has no scientific basis."

Nevertheless, there was a quick outcry from a number of British scientists. Richard Roberts, a member of the Royal Society and a Nobel Prize winner, sent a letter endorsed by his fellow laureates Harold Kroto and John Sulston to the Royal Society, complaining about Reiss's remarks as reported; he was quoted in the Guardian (September 14, 2008) as saying, "I think it is outrageous that this man is suggesting that creationism should be discussed in a science classroom. It is an incredible idea and I am drafting a letter to other Nobel laureates -- which would be sent to the Royal Society -- to ask that Reiss be made to stand down."

Part of the outcry centered on the fact that, in addition to being a biologist and professor of science education, Reiss is also a clergyman, ordained in the Church of England. Richard Dawkins told the Guardian (September 14, 2008), "A clergyman in charge of education for the country's leading scientific organisation -- it's a Monty Python sketch," and Roberts's letter to the Royal Society commented, "We gather Professor Reiss is a clergyman, which in itself is very worrisome. Who on earth thought that he would be an appropriate Director of Education, who could be expected to answer questions about the differences between science and religion in a scientific, reasoned way?"

Subsequently, in a September 16, 2008, letter to New Scientist, Dawkins distanced himself from the call for Reiss's ouster, describing Roberts's letter's complaint about Reiss's clerical status as "a little too close to a witch-hunt for my squeamish taste," characterizing his Monty Python comparison as "a little uncharitable," and commenting, "Although I disagree with him, what he actually said at the British Association is not obviously silly like creationism itself, nor is it a self-evidently inappropriate stance for the Royal Society to take." (He also mentioned "Eugenie Scott, whose National Center for Science Education is doing splendid work in fighting the creationist wingnuts in America"!)

It wasn't only scientists who were critical of Reiss's remarks as reported. Phil Willis, a Member of Parliament who chairs the Commons Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee, took umbrage, telling the Times of London (September 16, 2008), "I was horrified to hear these views and I reject them totally. They are a step too far and they fly in the face of what science is about. I think if his [Professor Reiss's] views are as mentioned they may be incompatible with his position." After Reiss's resignation, Willis expressed satisfaction with the result, telling the Times (September 17, 2008), "I hope the society will now stop burying its head and start taking on creationism."

Not all members of the British scientific community were critical of Reiss. After his resignation, Roland Jackson, chief executive of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, told BBC News (September 16, 2008) that his departure was a "real loss," adding, "I was at the actual discussion and what I heard him say, however it has been reported, was essentially the position advocated by the Royal Society." Robert Winston, professor of science and society at Imperial College London and a distinguished medical scientist and science popularizer, lamented, "This is not a good day for the reputation of science or scientists." Reiss is returning to his position of Professor of Science Education at the Institute of Education at the University of London.

For the Royal Society's press releases, visit:
http://royalsociety.org/news.asp?id=8008
http://royalsociety.org/news.asp?year=&id=8004

For Reiss's essay "Science lessons should tackle creationism and intelligent design," visit:
http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/blog/2008/sep/11/michael.reiss.creationism

For news coverage from the Times of London, the Telegraph, the Guardian, and BBC News, visit:
http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/uk/science/article4734767.ece
(September 12, 2008)
http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/uk/science/article4760967.ece
(September 16, 2008)
http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/uk/science/article4768820.ece
(September 17, 2008)
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/newstopics/politics/education/2798162/Creationism-should-be-taught-in-science-classes-says-expert.html
http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2008/sep/14/religion
http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/education/7619670.stm

For the IAP's 2006 statement on the teaching of evolution, visit:
http://www.interacademies.net/Object.File/Master/6/150/Evolution%20statement.pdf

For Richard Roberts's letter, visit:
http://richarddawkins.net/article,3119,n,n

For Richard Dawkins's letter, visit:
http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn14748-letter-richard-dawkins-on-the-royal-society-row.html

ALLIANCE FOR SCIENCE EVOLUTION ESSAY CONTEST

The Alliance for Science -- a non-profit organization which seeks "to heighten public understanding and support for science and to preserve the distinctions between science and religion in the public sphere" -- is holding its third annual essay contest. The theme is "In Darwin's Footsteps," and students are encouraged "to identify and write about a single scientist, a group of scientists, or a scientific organization that best exemplifies the character and quality of work that sustained Darwin throughout his career."

Essays will be judged for their scientific focus, and correctness, quality of analysis and interpretation, personal voice and interest, and clarity and style of writing. Cash prizes will be given to the top four students, with $300.00 for first place. Sponsoring teachers of the top two students will receive cash for purchase of educational materials. Additional prizes include educational DVDs and books such as Carl Zimmer's Microcosm, Lauri Lebo's The Devil in Dover, and Kenneth R. Miller's Only a Theory.

This contest is open to all high school students living in the United States and its territories. Students must submit individual original essays and have a sponsoring teacher. Sponsoring teachers can include former teachers, science program coordinators, or science museum staff. Electronic submissions (via e-mail) are preferred, but printed essays will also be accepted. Registration forms and official contest rules are posted at the Alliance for Science website.

For the Alliance for Science contest website, visit:
http://www.allianceforscience.org/essay

To read the winning essays from the 2008 contest, visit:
http://www.allianceforscience.org/essay_2008_main

Thanks for reading! And as always, be sure to consult NCSE's web site: http://www.ncseweb.org where you can always find the latest news on evolution education and threats to it.

Sincerely,

Glenn Branch
Deputy Director
National Center for Science Education, Inc.
420 40th Street, Suite 2
Oakland, CA 94609-2509
510-601-7203 x305
fax: 510-601-7204
800-290-6006
branch@ncseweb.org
http://www.ncseweb.org

Not in Our Classrooms: Why Intelligent Design Is Wrong for Our Schools
http://www.ncseweb.org/nioc

Eugenie C. Scott's Evolution vs. Creationism
http://www.ncseweb.org/evc

NCSE's work is supported by its members. Join today!
http://www.ncseweb.org/membership.asp


Friday, September 19, 2008

Rabbis' open letter backs teaching of evolution in public schools

http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/local/chi-relig-evolution-19-sep19,0,4695850.story

Christian clergy wrote similar missive in 2004

By Robert Mitchum | Chicago Tribune reporter
September 19, 2008

For Rabbi Gary Gerson of the Oak Park Temple B'nai Abraham Zion, evolution does not oppose religious belief but strengthens it.

"If anything, it all the more underscores the magnificence of creation as the expression of some highest order," Gerson said. "We as Jews every day praise God for the times and seasons and the order of being, and that perhaps is the greatest miracle of all. This is not caprice. There is a natural order to things."

Seeing evidence of the divine in the theories of Charles Darwin meant that Gerson did not hesitate to sign an open letter drafted by a suburban Chicago rabbi this summer supporting the teaching of evolution in public schools. The two-paragraph letter, written by Rabbi David Oler of Congregation Beth Or in Deerfield, has attracted 235 signatures since its completion in July, with Jewish leaders from across the United States supporting its cause.

The effort, Oler said, spun off from the Clergy Letter Project, launched in 2004 by Michael Zimmerman, now the dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at Butler University in Indianapolis. Zimmerman asked Christian clergy to draft an open letter, since signed by 11,000 religious leaders, supporting the public teaching of evolution and emphasizing that religion does not have to be an enemy of science.

Tribune religion page But Oler, who also holds a doctorate in clinical psychology, felt that Jewish clergy should also be given an opportunity to endorse the teaching of evolution while rebuking the addition of creationist theories to school curricula.

"I would say that as Jews, being a minority, we're particularly sensitive to not having the views of others imposed on us," Oler said. "Creationism and intelligent design are particularly religious matters that don't belong in public school system."

Arguments about whether alternatives to evolution should be taught in public schools continue to be raised across the United States, most recently in state legislatures in Louisiana and Florida.

The debate has also been refueled by reports that Republican vice-presidential candidate Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin said she supported the teaching of creationism along with evolution in public schools during a 2006 gubernatorial debate.

To Zimmerman, "the goal of both letters is to say that religious leaders, both Jewish and Christian, can come together and be secure in their faith without having their faith impact and pervert modern science. There are fundamentalists of many stripes whose religious predilections have perverted scientific worldview. When that narrow religious perspective ends up being taught as science, we're doing society a real harm."

Rabbi Debra Newman Kamin of the conservative Am Yisrael synagogue in Northfield, who signed the letter last month, called the movement to teach creationism in public schools alongside evolution "horrifying."

Carl Feit, the Ades Chair of Health Science at Yeshiva University in New York City and an ordained orthodox rabbi, said that compared with American Christianity, Judaism is largely untroubled by evolution. The majority of Jewish scholars moved away from literal readings of the creation story in Genesis hundreds of years ago, Feit said.

Influential 12th Century Jewish philosopher Maimonides wrote that where science convincingly contradicts Jewish text, the text should be reinterpreted, he said.

But opinions still differ within the Jewish faith about how evolution should be taught to students in both public and religious schools.

Rabbi Gerald Teller, rabbi-in-residence at the Solomon Schechter Day School, which operates Conservative Jewish grade and middle schools in Skokie and Northbrook, said that their science classes teach that evolution is the "unfolding of God's will."

"We believe that there is a designer behind the world, somebody who operates as creator," Teller said. "When God began the process of creation, one of the natural laws in the process was evolution."

Teller said that he believed public schools should allow for the discussion of alternate views of creation, religious or otherwise, a view echoed by Rabbi Asher Lopatin of the orthodox Anshe Sholom B'nai Israel synagogue in Chicago.

"I think public schools have to show that they are sensitive to that issue . . . that not anyone who challenges evolution is considered evil," Lopatin said.

Feit said that in his introductory biology course at Yeshiva, he teaches students both the science of evolution and Jewish texts relevant to the creation of the world to show how to reconcile any apparent conflicts.

With efforts such as Oler's letter, Feit hopes that a similar understanding can be reached between opponents on the issue of teaching evolution in public schools.

"The voices that people have heard, particularly in the religious world, have been from one particular segment of religion, and so the people not involved generalize the religious position," Feit said. "I think it's very important that other significant religious views also be heard. . . . There's nothing monolithic going on here, different religions have different points of view."

rmitchum@tribune.com

Scientists shed light on the evolution of pregnancy in mammals

http://www.newslocale.org/sci%10tech/stnews/scientists_shed_light_on_the_evolution_of_pregnancy_in_mammals_200809196115.html

Friday, 19 September 2008

Washington, September 19 (ANI): Scientists at Yale University say that the origin and evolution of the placenta and uterus in mammals is associated with evolutionary changes in a single regulatory protein.

"Many past studies have shown that genes are regulated and altered by changes within their own structures. This is the first work suggesting that the evolution of transcription factors - separate regulatory proteins - may play an active role in the origin and evolution of structural innovations like the placenta and uterus," said senior author Gunter Wagner, the Alison Richard Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Yale.

In their study report, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the researchers describe pregnancy as a biologically unusual situation where one organism lives and develops inside another that is genetically different.

Ordinarily, the immune system identifies and destroys the dissimilar tissue as if it were a parasite, but in some early mammals, changes 'turned down' the immune system, allowing the developing embryo to grow and thrive unchallenged by the maternal immune response.

The evolution of the uterus and placenta made it possible for mammals to protect their growing young, and to ensure they were not exposed to an unpredictable environment, like their egg-laying relatives.

The Yale researchers say that their study has identified one of the genetic switches that tempered the immune system to enable the formation of the placenta and internal development of young.

The team said that they analysed DNA from many species of mammals, including resurrecting genes from the extinct ancestors of mammals, and found that a crucial regulatory link in the evolution of pregnancy involved the altered function of a transcription factor protein, HoxA-11.

According to them, the specific change they have identified in HoxA-11 is present in all known placenta mammals, from elephants, the most primitive lineage with a placenta, to humans.

It, however, does not exist in marsupials like opossums or wallabies, where there is a brief and rudimentary pregnancy followed by development of the offspring outside the mother. Egg-laying mammals, such as the platypus, also lacked it.

Regulatory proteins like HoxA-11 are considered to be ancient, universal and unchanging tools, and that new functions arise by using an existing tool from the gene regulatory 'toolbox' in a new or different place.

Graduate student Vincent Lynch, lead author of the study, said: "We are writing a different chapter. In this case the function of a major regulatory tool was altered - it is like we found a redesigned hammer." (ANI)

Creationism should be taught in science lessons, say teachers

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/2988753/Creationism-should-be-taught-in-science-lessons-say-teachers.html

More than a quarter of science teachers believe creationism should be discussed in lessons, according to new research.

By Graeme Paton, Education Editor
Last Updated: 12:43PM BST 19 Sep 2008

Many believe God had a role in the creation of the universe - and pupils should be encouraged to debate it alongside the theory of evolution, it is claimed.

The conclusions come amid continuing debate over comments from Professor Michael Reiss over the role of creationism in school biology classes.

In a controversial move, he said the topic should be tackled by teachers if raised by pupils.

Prof Reiss, a Church of England minister, quit as director of education at the Royal Society following criticism of the remarks, which he claimed had been taken out of context.

But research by Southampton University suggests many teachers agree that religious beliefs should play a part in discussions about the origin of life.

Some 36 per cent of teachers quizzed said they believed a divine hand played a role in the creation of humanity, while 28 per cent said it should be raised in lessons.

One science teacher told researchers: "Human beings were created by a divine being pretty much in their present form."

Another said: "I would like students to respect and understand religious beliefs, and I would like those with belief to understand the importance of their beliefs, without the necessity for them to be scientific."

The conclusions will fuel the debate over creationism in science lessons.

Last week, Prof Reiss said about one in 10 children was from a family which supported a creationist rather than evolutionary view.

"What are we to do with those children?" he said. "My experience after having tried to teach biology for 20 years is if one simply gives the impression that such children are wrong, then they are not likely to learn much about the science that one really wants them to learn.

"I think a better way forward is to say to them 'look, I simply want to present you with the scientific understanding of the history of the universe and how animals and plants and other organisms evolved'."

The comments were widely interpreted as putting creationism on an equal footing with evolutionary theory, despite denials from Prof Reiss.

In the latest study, Pam Hanley, a researcher at Southampton's school of education, carried out interviews with 66 science and religious education teachers. Only 12 per cent of science teachers said the discussion of creationism was "very controversial". This fell to four per cent among RE teachers.

Derek Bell, chief executive of the Association for Science Education, told the Times Educational Supplement: "Yes, you can teach evolution if you believe in a divine being, but you must be very clear about what is science and what is not. As a scientist, you may have the luxury of simply saying ' we will have no truck with this'. But as a teacher, you cannot ignore students if they ask you questions. You have to respond in an appropriate manner."

Shining a light where science and theology meet

http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/faith/article4790446.ece

Why literal creationists are abusing and misinterpreting scripture
John Polkinghorne

An irritating feature of modern life is the way in which useful words get hijacked and used for different, and often unacceptable, purposes. An example is "creationist". As a Christian believer I am, of course, a creationist in the proper sense of the term, for I believe that the mind and the purpose of a divine Creator lie behind the fruitful history and remarkable order of the universe which science explores. But I am certainly not a creationist in that curious North American sense, which implies interpreting Genesis 1 in a flat-footed literal way and supposing that evolution is wrong.

The irony of this notion of creationism is that it not only involves many scientific errors, but is also the result of a bad theological mistake. When we read any kind of deep literature, if we are to give it the respect that it deserves we must make sure we understand the genre of what is written. Mistaking poetry for prose can lead to false conclusions. When Robert Burns tell us his love "is like a red, red rose", we know that we are not meant to think that his girlfriend has green leaves and prickles. Reading Genesis 1 as if it were a divinely dictated scientific text, intended to save us the trouble of actually doing science, is to make a similar kind of error. We miss the point of the chapter if we do not see that it is actually a piece of deep theological writing whose purpose, through the eight-times reiterated phrase "And God said, 'Let there be . . .", is to assert that everything that exists does so because of the will of the Creator. Thus literal creationists actually abuse scripture by the mistaken interpretation that they impose upon it.

Next year will be the 150th anniversary of the publication of Charles Darwin's great work, The Origin of Species. An ignorant view of history claims that in 1859 all the scientific people accepted Darwin right away and all the religious people rejected him. Neither statement is true. Many scientists had difficulties, mainly because their ignorance of genetics (soon to be discovered — for many years unnoticed — by the Austrian monk Gregor Mendel) meant that the origin and nature of the small differences between succeeding generations, to which Darwin had to appeal, seemed to be obscure and doubtful. On the other hand, some religious people welcomed Darwin's insights from the start. Notable among these was the novelist and clergyman Charles Kingsley. He coined a phrase which continues to epitomise the theological way in which to understand the fact of an evolutionary world. Kingsley said that no doubt God could have created a ready-made world, but it had turned out the Creator had done something cleverer and more valuable than that, in creating a world so endowed with potentiality that creatures "could make themselves" through the shuffling explorations of natural selection. The God who is the Creator of nature can as properly be seen to be at work through natural processes as in any other way.

Creationism and evolution have been in the news recently because of the furore that has led to the resignation of Professor Michael Reiss from his part-time post as an educational adviser at the Royal Society. I believe that he has been the victim of our sound-bite culture, in which a phrase is plucked from a considered speech and, out of context, is made to seem as if something quite contrary to the speaker's actual intention was being said. In a letter to The Times a week ago, Reiss sought to put the record straight. His first sentence unequivocally stated that "creationism has no scientific validity" and a little later he said that "evolution is recognised as the best explanation for the history of life on Earth, and for the diversity of species". He also made the reasonable remark that "If a young person raises the issue of creationism in a science class, a teacher should be in a position to examine why it does not stand up to scientific investigation". I know Michael Reiss to have a sensible and sensitive concern for educational matters relating to science and religion, and I very much regret that misrepresentation of his views has led to his resignation.

The Rev Canon John Polkinghorne, KBE, FRS, is a particle physicist and a theologian. He was President of Queens' College, Cambridge, 1989-96


Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Vatican evolution congress to exclude creationism, intelligent design

http://www.catholicnews.com/data/stories/cns/0804713.htm

By Carol Glatz Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Speakers invited to attend a Vatican-sponsored congress on the evolution debate will not include proponents of creationism and intelligent design, organizers said.

The Pontifical Council for Culture, Rome's Pontifical Gregorian University and the University of Notre Dame in Indiana are organizing an international conference in Rome March 3-7 as one of a series of events marking the 150th anniversary of the publication of Charles Darwin's "The Origin of Species."

Jesuit Father Marc Leclerc, a philosophy professor at the Gregorian, told Catholic News Service Sept. 16 that organizers "wanted to create a conference that was strictly scientific" and that discussed rational philosophy and theology along with the latest scientific discoveries.

He said arguments "that cannot be critically defined as being science, or philosophy or theology did not seem feasible to include in a dialogue at this level and, therefore, for this reason we did not think to invite" supporters of creationism and intelligent design.

Father Leclerc was one of several organizers speaking at a Sept. 16 Vatican press conference about the congress, part of the culture council's "Science, Technology and the Ontological Quest," or STOQ project.

Archbishop Gianfranco Ravasi, president of the Pontifical Council for Culture, said the other extreme of the evolution debate -- proponents of an overly scientific conception of evolution and natural selection -- also were not invited.

He reiterated that evolutionary theory "is not incompatible with the teachings of the Catholic Church or the Bible's message."

Gennaro Auletta, professor of philosophy at the Gregorian and head of the STOQ project, said organizers hope the encounter will help theologians and philosophers be "a bit more humble and learn to listen a bit more" to what science is unveiling about humanity and the world.

Auletta said Popes Pius XII, John Paul II and Benedict XVI have expressed "a fundamental interest" in the theory of biological evolution. However, the pontiffs' hopes that Catholics would gain greater understanding of the issues has not yet materialized, he said.

Phillip Sloan, a professor at Notre Dame, told the press conference the evolution debate, "especially in the United States, has been taking place without a strong Catholic presence ... and the discourse has suffered accordingly."

While there has been Catholic commentary on the compatibility of faith and evolutionary theories, there is no definitive written source to which people can refer to learn the church's position, he said.

Sloan said he hoped the March conference and other initiatives planned by Notre Dame and the Vatican would foster the development of "informed Catholic thought" on the subject.

Copyright (c) 2008 Catholic News Service/USCCB

Creationism plea professor resigns

http://ukpress.google.com/article/ALeqM5hiMTebVo6o8ZPqxvTgENzvEHGoug

A leading biologist and education expert has resigned from his senior post at the Royal Society days after calling for creationism to be included in science lessons.

The Rev Professor Michael Reiss stepped down as the Royal Society's director of education, and in a statement the society said his comments had damaged its reputation.

Speaking at the British Association Festival of Science at the University of Liverpool, earlier this week, Prof Reiss - an ordained Church of England minister - said it was better for science teachers not to see creationism as a "misconception" but as a "world view".

Around 10% of British schoolchildren come from families with sincere creationist beliefs, Prof Reiss had said, In the US, the proportion of creationist schoolchildren was 40%.

Some creationists reject the concept of evolution and suggest that the Earth is only 10,000 years old.

The Royal Society said Prof Reiss' departure was agreed by both sides to be in the best interests of the venerable institution, the UK's national academy of science.

"The Royal Society's position is that creationism has no scientific basis and should not be part of the science curriculum," the statement read.

"However, if a young person raises creationism in a science class, teachers should be in a position to explain why evolution is a sound scientific theory and why creationism is not, in any way, scientific."

The statement went on to thank Prof Reiss for his efforts as director of education.

Professor Richard Dawkins, a fellow of the Royal Society and outspoken opponent of creationism, said the society's policy of "accommodationism" - a standpoint which seeks to "respect" creationism while disagreeing with it - had made Prof Reiss's position problematic.

Copyright © 2008 The Press Association.


Friday, September 12, 2008

Evolution education update: September 12, 2008

The Society of Vertebrate Paleontology is the latest organization to denounce the antievolution law in Louisiana. Meanwhile, the United Church Observer reviews the state of the creationism/evolution controversy in Canada, and NCSE's Project Steve attains its 900th signatory -- and by now its 930th.

PALEONTOLOGISTS DECRY LOUISIANA'S ANTIEVOLUTION LAW

In a September 4, 2008, press release, the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology urged Louisiana citizens and legislators to repeal the recently enacted "Science Education Act" in their state, writing, "The Act was drafted under the guise of 'academic freedom' and appeals to cherished values of fairness and free speech. However, SVP says the Act intends to garner support and legal protection for the introduction of religious, creationist concepts, including intelligent design, in public school science curricula. By permitting instructional materials that are not reviewed by the state's science standards committees, the Louisiana Act and those like it encourage teachers and administrators to work outside these standards. This makes it possible for local school boards to define science and science education to suit their own agendas, thereby compromising the quality of science education for students, and allowing religious discrimination in America's public school science classrooms."

Founded in 1940, the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology is the leading North American scientific and educational organization concerned with vertebrate paleontology. According to its position statement on evolution education, "Evolution is fundamental to the teaching of good biology and geology ... The record of vertebrate evolution is exciting, inspirational, instructive, and enjoyable, and it is our view that everyone should have the opportunity and the privilege to understand it as paleontologists do." In decrying the Louisiana law, the Society joins a host of scientific organizations, including the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Institute of Biological Sciences and seven of its member societies, and (together) the Society for the Study of Evolution and the Society of Systematic Biologists.

For the SVP's press release, visit:
http://www.vertpaleo.org/news/permalinks/2008/09/04/

For the SVP's position statement on evolution education, visit:
http://www.vertpaleo.org/education/index.cfm

For the protests from the ASBMB, AAAS (PDF), AIBS, and SSE and SSB (PDF), visit:
http://www.asbmb.org/News.aspx?id=1054
http://www.aaas.org/news/releases/2008/media/0620-la-gov-jindal-veto.pdf
http://www.aibs.org/position-statements/20080620_joint_statement.html
http://www.evolutionsociety.org/download/SSElettertoJindal.pdf

And for NCSE's previous coverage of events in Louisiana, visit:
http://www.ncseweb.org/pressroom.asp?state=LA

UPDATE FROM CANADA

Writing in the September 2008 issue of the United Church Observer, Drew Halfnight discusses the public understanding of evolution in Canada. With the evolution wars constantly raging to the south, "Canadians see themselves as spectators to someone else's battle," he writes, adding, "Though it may not have the profile or scope here that it has in the U.S., the tension between a Bible-based understanding of the origins of creation and the science of evolution evidently does not stop at the border."

As NCSE previously reported, according to the latest poll of Canadian public opinion, 58 percent accept evolution, while 22 percent think that God created humans in their present form within the last 10,000 years, and 20 percent are unsure. (In the United States, 50% of respondents preferred the pro-evolution responses, with 44 percent preferring "God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so," and with only 5 percent volunteering a different response or declining to answer.)

The article devotes several paragraphs to the episode in which Brian Alters's project to study the effects of the popularization of "intelligent design" on Canadian students, teachers, parents, administrators, and policymakers was denied funding by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, in part on the grounds that the proposal lacked adequate "justification for the assumption in the proposal that the theory of evolution, and not intelligent-design theory, was correct."

Halfnight writes, "The problem, of course, is that evolution is a scientific theory, while ID theory is not. Evolutionary biology is based on mountains of observable evidence, while ID cannot be tested at all. In short, ID has nothing to do with science, and everything to do with belief." Jason Wiles, who manages the Evolution Education Research Centre at McGill University, commented that the SSHRC "put evolution and ID on the same footing, then said, 'Our position is to have no position.'"

Evolution is neglected in Canada's public school curricula, too: "In all but one provincial science curriculum, evolution is relegated to a single unit in a Grade 11 or 12 elective course taken by a sliver of each graduating class. It would not be a stretch to say the majority of Canadian high school students graduate without ever encountering Darwin's theory of natural selection." Additionally, private religious schools are allowed to teach creationism alongside evolution.

As in the United States, there is plenty of opposition to the teaching of evolution in Canadian schools. Leesa Blake, vice-president of the Science Teachers' Association of Ontario, told Halfnight that teachers often experience pressure from parents or students to teach creationism. And as with their counterparts in the United States, Canadian teachers often feel unprepared to teach evolution: "A lot of the people who are teaching biology don't actually have the training" to teach evolution, Blake told Halfnight.

The article ends with a plea for keeping religious views out of science classes, quoting Denis Lamoureux, described as "a devout evangelical Christian and confirmed evolutionist who teaches science and religion at St. Joseph's College in the University of Alberta." (He is also the author of Evolutionary Creationism [Wipf & Stock, 2008].) "'So how are we going to teach biology?' he asks. 'Teach the science as metaphysically free as possible. In other words, keep God out of it, keep the atheistic world view out of it.'"

For the story in the United Church Observer, visit:
http://www.ucobserver.org/ethics/2008/09/wheres_darwin/

To buy Evolutionary Creationism from Amazon.com (and benefit NCSE in the process), visit:
http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/asin/1556355815/nationalcenter02

And for NCSE's previous coverage of events in Canada, visit:
http://www.ncseweb.org/pressroom.asp?state=CN

PROJECT STEVE: N = 900

With the addition of Steven K. Nordeen on September 5, 2008, NCSE's Project Steve attained its 900th signatory -- and the Steveometer is now at 930. A tongue-in-cheek parody of a long-standing creationist tradition of amassing lists of "scientists who doubt evolution" or "scientists who dissent from Darwinism," Project Steve mocks such lists by restricting its signatories to scientists whose first name is Steve (or a cognate, such as Stephanie, Esteban, Istvan, Stefano, or even Tapani -- the Finnish equivalent). About 1% of the United States population possesses such a first name, so each signatory represents about 100 potential signatories. ("Steve" was selected in honor of the late Stephen Jay Gould, a Supporter of NCSE and a dauntless defender of evolution education.)

Although the idea of Project Steve is frivolous, the statement is serious. It reads, "Evolution is a vital, well-supported, unifying principle of the biological sciences, and the scientific evidence is overwhelmingly in favor of the idea that all living things share a common ancestry. Although there are legitimate debates about the patterns and processes of evolution, there is no serious scientific doubt that evolution occurred or that natural selection is a major mechanism in its occurrence. It is scientifically inappropriate and pedagogically irresponsible for creationist pseudoscience, including but not limited to 'intelligent design,' to be introduced into the science curricula of our nation's public schools."

Highlights from the history of Project Steve include the original press release, Glenn Branch and Skip Evans's description of the project for Geotimes, the announcement that Steven W. Hawking was Steve #300, the announcement (on St. Stephen's Day!) of Steve #400, the publication of a front-page story on Project Steve in a leading Canadian newspaper, and the announcements of Steves #600, #700, and #800. And, of course, Project Steve proved to be scientifically fruitful in its own right. "The Morphology of Steve," by Eugenie C. Scott, Glenn Branch, Nick Matzke, and several hundred Steves, appeared in the prestigious Annals of Improbable Research; the paper provided "the first scientific analysis of the sex, geographic location, and body size of scientists named Steve."

Additionally, Project Steve appeared in Steven Pinker's recent book, The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature (Viking 2007). Pinker, himself a single-digit Steve, described it as "the most formidable weapon in the fight against neo-creationism today," adding, "Part satire, part memorial to Stephen Jay Gould, the project maintains a Steve-O-Meter (now pointing past 800) and has spun off a T-shirt, a song, a mascot (Professor Steve Steve, a panda puppet), and a paper in the respected scientific journal Annals of Improbable Research called 'The Morphology of Steve' (based on the T-shirt sizes ordered by the signatories)."

For information about Project Steve, visit:
http://www.ncseweb.org/resources/articles/3541_project_steve_2_16_2003.asp

For "The Morphology of Steve" (PDF), visit:
http://improbable.com/pages/airchives/paperair/volume10/v10i4/morph-steve-10-4.pdf

Glenn Branch
Deputy Director
National Center for Science Education, Inc.
420 40th Street, Suite 2
Oakland, CA 94609-2509
510-601-7203 x305
fax: 510-601-7204
800-290-6006
branch@ncseweb.org
http://www.ncseweb.org

Not in Our Classrooms: Why Intelligent Design Is Wrong for Our Schools
http://www.ncseweb.org/nioc

Eugenie C. Scott's Evolution vs. Creationism
http://www.ncseweb.org/evc

NCSE's work is supported by its members. Join today!
http://www.ncseweb.org/membership.asp

Fogging Up Those Old-Time Forecasts

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/09/09/AR2008090903091.html

Traditional Almanacs Ponder Meaning of Climate Change

By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 10, 2008; B01

HAGERSTOWN, Md. -- They call themselves "prognosticators," people who study the phases of the moon and the height of wasp nests, then declare there will be showers on Oct. 18, 2009.

Prognosticators create long-range weather charts for the handful of surviving farmer's almanacs -- an old job, done an old way. They eschew Doppler radar and weather satellites and look for clues in the timeless rhythms of nature.

But now, the world and the weather don't look as timeless as they used to. Scientists say the planet is warming, threatening to make droughts more widespread, heat waves more punishing and hurricanes more severe.

So one of the country's most fervently unmodern subcultures has had to confront climate change. Prognosticators are deciding how -- or if -- they should factor greenhouse gases into weather-predicting formulas that are two centuries old.

Traditional methods "worked really well for hundreds of years," said Bill O'Toole, prognosticator for the Washington area's local almanac, J. Gruber's Hagers-Town Town and Country Almanack, founded in 1797. "Global warming has kind of messed it up," said O'Toole, who has started predicting shorter winters and less snow than in the past.

But yesterday, one of the giants of the almanac world pronounced in the opposite direction. The Old Farmer's Almanac, based in Dublin, N.H., predicted "global cooling" for the next two decades. The forecast was based on an expected change in sunspots and ocean temperatures, still better-understood factors than climate change, said the almanac's editor, Janice Stillman.

"We're looking forward to cooler-than-normal conditions for quite some time," Stillman said in a telephone interview. "We just simply don't predict what kind of effect greenhouse gases . . . may have on that."

Across the country, this is almanac season. The 2009 versions of these old-timey books are arriving in stores, from such behemoths as the 3.5 million-circulation Farmers' Almanac in Maine to the struggling almanac in Hagerstown, which will print 75,000 copies.

Almanacs were designed as both entertainment and how-to books for frontier families. They still have old eclecticism: brisket recipes, corny jokes, lists of the vice presidents. And the weather predictions remain a big draw.

The forecasts are far-reaching and, not surprisingly, tend to vary from book to book. "Blustery and colder" is the Maine almanac's prediction for Dec. 31, 2009, in the Mid-Atlantic. "Cloudy, not as cold," the Hagerstown almanac says.

If this kind of ultra-long-range forecasting sounds improbable, the U.S. government says it's impossible.

"In the opinion of most scientists in the field, you cannot say anything about individual daily weather more than about a week out," said Mike Halpert, of the Climate Prediction Center at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Prognosticators contend that the government's not looking in the right places.

Some of them say the secrets of the weather can be traced in cycles of sunspots -- dark spots on the sun related to changes in magnetic activity. The idea is that shifts in the sun's energy eventually effect the climate on Earth. Another school studies the movements of the tides, believing that they signal changes in the weather in roughly 18-year cycles.

Others look closer to home.

"This year, I find . . . the squirrels are not shaking the nuts out of the trees," said Gerald S. Lestz, 94, editor of Baer's Agricultural Almanac & Gardener's Guide in Lancaster, Pa.

Lestz said he also noticed that wasps were building their nests relatively close to the ground, perhaps indicating that snow would not pile up too high.

This winter "looks a little on the mild side," he said.

Almanac staff members say their predictions are trusted by the public, often consulted by brides-to-be, members of the clergy, horse racing promoters and other people who want to know if the rain will fall on a special day that might be months or years off.

They contend that they're correct more often than not.

In Hagerstown, the weather isn't even the most astounding thing the $3.50 almanac predicts: it boasts a formula to identify the sex of an unborn child, using the birthday and Zodiac sign of an older sibling.

"I've never, ever had anybody tell me I was wrong" about that, said Jerry Spessard, almanac's business manager. About half of the booklet's customers, he said, live in the Washington area.

But for prognosticators, climate change is a problem on a much bigger scale. It threatens the very bedrock of their craft -- the idea that nature is repeating itself.

Scientists around the world have concluded that average temperatures could rise 3 degrees or more by 2100, as mounting levels of carbon dioxide and pollutants trap heat in the Earth's atmosphere. That change is expected to raise sea levels, alter long-established weather patterns and affect plant and animal life.

In Hagerstown, O'Toole said he realized that the old ways had to change. In recent years, he has revised the way he uses the old chart of the moon's phases, predicting that summer conditions will come earlier and stay longer.

"I forecast less snow. I forecast the first snow later in the year and the last snow earlier in the year," said O'Toole, a retired math and computer science professor from Mount St. Mary's University in Emmitsburg, Md.

O'Toole, a man used to slow changes, has become alarmed, and he urges people to do their part to stop climate change.

For O'Toole, the arrival of Tropical Storm Hanna on Saturday was just the latest evidence of the change. His forecasting methods, based on centuries-old charts keyed to the phases of the moon, predicted storms this month. But they didn't foresee anything like Hanna, which dropped seven inches of rain in some spots in Northern Virginia. His forecast had been "fair, cooler."

"I was surprised at the intensity," O'Toole said. He said it was part of a new pattern: "Storms will become more numerous and stronger; that will be the general trend."

But other prognosticators haven't gone as far in accepting climate change.

"Our formula basically is about 200 years old, and it's worked pretty well for us," said Sandi Duncan, managing editor of the almanac in Maine.

Duncan said the almanac prognosticator's formula is a secret, even to her. The aim is to prevent people from saving the $5.99 and forecasting the weather on their own. But she said the prognosticator, known only by the pseudonym "Caleb Weatherbee," had not considered climate change as a major factor in the forecast.

"It hasn't really played that much of a curve into our weather picture," said Duncan, whose almanac, like the one in New Hampshire, is calling for a cold winter.

At the almanac in Lancaster, Lestz said he had seen signs that temperatures are warming, but "we're going to give . . . climate change a little more time to get organized." He said he would include it in his forecasts as a minor factor.

"On a scale of one to 10, three," he said.

What about the wasps and squirrels?

"They're nine and 10," Lestz said.

Early Whales Had Legs

http://www.livescience.com/animals/080911-whale-legs.html

Charles Q. Choi Special to LiveScience
LiveScience.com Fri Sep 12, 12:02 AM ET

The first whales once swam the seas by wiggling large hind feet, research now suggests.

These new findings shed light on the mysterious shift these leviathans made away from land.

The ancestors of whales once strode on land on four legs, just as other mammals do. Over time, as they evolved to dwell in water, their front legs became flippers while they lost their back legs and hips, although modern whales all still retain traces of pelvises, and occasionally throwbacks are born with vestiges of hind limbs.

A great deal of mystery surrounds how the anatomy of the first whales changed to propel them through the water. A key piece of that puzzle would be the discovery of when exactly the wide flukes on their powerful tails arose.

"The origin of flukes is one of the last steps in the transition from land to sea," explained vertebrate paleontologist Mark Uhen of the Alabama Museum of Natural History in Tuscaloosa .

To shed light on this mystery, Uhen analyzed new fossils that amateur bone hunters discovered exposed along riverbanks in Alabama and Mississippi . These bones once belonged to the ancient whale Georgiacetus, which swam along the Gulf Coast of North America roughly 40 million years ago, back when Florida was mostly submerged underwater. This creature reached some 12 feet in length and likely used its sharp teeth to dine on squid and fish.

The first whales known to possess flukes are close relatives of Georgiacetus that date back to 38 million years ago. But while only about 2 million years separate Georgiacetus from these other whales, Uhen now finds that Georgiacetus apparently did not possess flukes. The new 2-inch-long tail vertebra he analyzed - one of some 20 tail vertebrae the ancient whale had - is not flattened as the vertebrae near whales flukes are.

Instead, Uhen suggests that Georgiacetus wiggled large back feet like paddles in order to swim. Past research showed this ancient whale had large hips, which suggested it also had large hind legs. Oddly, scientists had also found that its pelvis was not attached to its spine. This meant its hind legs could not paddle in the water or support the whale's body weight on land, leaving it a puzzle as to what they were for until now.

"The idea we are now helping confirm is that this ancient whale wiggled its hips to swim, moving its feet like hydrofoils or paddles. So it swam rather like a modern whale, which undulates its body up and down," Uhen told LiveScience.

The scientists detailed their findings in the latest issue of the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.

The Gay Gray Whale
Useless Limbs Vestigal Organs
World's Biggest Beasts

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Leading scientist urges teaching of creationism in schools

http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/uk/science/article4734767.ece

From The Times September 12, 2008

The education director at the Royal Society says science teachers should treat creationism as legitimate

Lewis Smith, Science Reporter and Alexandra Frean, Education Editor

Creationism should be taught in science classes as a legitimate point of view, according to the Royal Society, putting the august science body on a collision course with the Government.

The Rev Michael Reiss, a biologist and its director of education, said it was self-defeating to dismiss as wrong or misguided the 10 per cent of pupils who believed in the literal account of God creating the Universe and all living things as related in the Bible or Koran. It would be better, he said, to treat creationism as a world view.

His comments put him at odds with fellow scientists as well as the Government. Former Fellows of the Royal Society include Charles Darwin, who first proposed the theory of evolution.

National curriculum guidelines state that creationism has no place in science lessons. The Government says that if it is raised by students, teachers should discuss how creationism differs from evolution, say that it is not scientific theory and that further discussion should be saved for religious classes.

Professor Reiss, a biologist, was speaking at the British Association's Festival of Science in Liverpool. Other scientists were vociferous in their response, saying that creationism should remain entirely within the sphere of religious education.

Professor Lewis Wolpert, of University College Medical School, said: "Creationism is based on faith and has nothing to do with science, and it should not be taught in science classes. It is based on religious beliefs and any discussion should be in religious studies."

Dr John Fry, a physicist at the University of Liverpool, said: "Science lessons are not the appropriate place to discuss creationism, which is a world view in total denial of any form of scientific evidence. Creationism doesn't challenge science: it denies it!"

However, Professor John Bryant, a biologist at the University of Exeter, agreed that creationism should be discussed as an alternative position of the origins of man and earth.

"If the class is mature enough and time permits, one might have a discussion on the alternative viewpoints," he said. "However, I think we should not present creationism as having the same status as evolution."

The Royal Society's support for the presence of creationism within the classroom points to a remarkable turn-around. Last year the society issued an open letter stating that creationism had no place in schools and that pupils should understand that science supported the theory of evolution.

A spokesman for the organisation, which counts 21 Nobel Prize winners among its Fellows, confirmed yesterday that Professor Reiss's views did represent that of its president, Lord Rees of Ludlow, and the society.

He said: "Teachers need to be in a position to be able to discuss science theories and explain why evolution is a sound scientific theory and why creationism isn't."

The Rev Tim Hastie-Smith, the new chairman of the Headmasters and Headmistresses' Conference, which represents 250 leading independent schools, said that creationism was taught in science classes at his school, Dean Close in Cheltenham, as a theory that some people believe in, not as a fact."If we get creationist books sent to us then we give them to the science department to be discussed. We want children to be aware of it."

Teachers would try to be sensitive if a pupil believed in creationism.

Professor Reiss, a Church of England clergyman, said: "Just because something lacks scientific support doesn't seem to me a sufficient reason to omit it from a science lesson."

Many children who go to school believing in creationism come from Muslim or fundamental Christian families, he said. While making clear to them that it is widely rejected by scientists, teachers should ensure they avoid denigrating creationist beliefs.

The theories

Creationism

The Universe and living organisms originated from acts of divine creation. This belief embraces the Biblical account and rejects theories in which natural processes are central, such as evolution. Some creationists have accepted geological findings and other methods of dating the Earth, insisting that such accounts do not necessarily contradict Biblical teachings

Evolution

Different kinds of living organisms have developed and diversified from earlier forms. Darwin's theory of gradual evolution holds that this development took place by natural selection of varieties of organism better adapted to the environment and more likely to produce descendants

Intelligent Design

Certain features of the Universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, and not by an undirected process such as natural selection. Proponents insist that it is not based on the Bible, claiming that its roots include the teachings of Plato and Aristotle, who, they say, articulated early versions of the theory

Sources: New Oxford Dictionary of English, Times Database

Library of Congress offers access to 800 years of biblical evolution

http://www.thebostonpilot.com/article.asp?ID=6851

By Chaz Muth Catholic News Service
Posted: 9/12/2008

In her first trip to the U.S. capital, the golden-haired Methodist said she wouldn't normally have made a beeline for the famous Bible exhibit, but the computerized display intrigued her and once at the site she wanted to know more about these giant books filled with Scriptures.

"You can read it and you can flip through the pages just by touching the screen," the sprightly youngster squealed, as she demonstrated how to use the interactive exhibit. "Look, this one was handwritten by monks. It's so cool."

This is the kind of excitement library officials were hoping to generate in the spring of 2008 when they set up the hi-tech apparatus next to the two famous centuries-old bibles, which are glass-encased and out of the reach of human touch, said Erin Allen, a staff member in the Public Affairs Office of the Library of Congress, the largest library in the world.

"Are these the only two Bibles in the library, or are there more?" the curious Savannah asked her mother, who shrugged her shoulders indicating she didn't know the answer.

The Library of Congress actually has thousands of Bibles in more than 150 languages, about 1,500 of which are considered significant editions for their rare or historic value, said Mark Dimunation, chief of the library's Rare Book and Special Collections Division.

Some of the oldest Bibles in the collection date back to the 13th century and were handwritten by scribes, Dimunation said.

In the Lessing & J. Rosenwald Room -- a space separated from the Great Hall in the library's Thomas Jefferson Building by a maze of hallways, an elevator shaft and a locked golden-caged door -- the rare books chief showed a reporter and photographer from Catholic News Service some of the most significant Bible editions in the Library of Congress collection.

Though most of the Bibles are more than 100 years old, the library official was generous with the accessibility of the books, some with worn leather, pigskin, embroidered or velvet bindings, often complete with gold-leafed pages of yellowing paper.

"They are all accessible to the public," Dimunation said. "As long as you are over the age of 18 and registered (with the library) to be a reader, you can come in and look at them."

And those who have valid research agendas are permitted to page through the rare books, under proper supervision, Allen said.

"The library gets about one research request a week to pour over the rare Bibles," Dimunation said.

The most celebrated Bibles in the collection are the Gutenberg and the Giant Bible of Mainz, which are proudly featured in the Great Hall, but some of the rarest Bibles, written in languages ranging from Hawaiian to Mongolian, are housed on shelves far removed from the main exhibits.

The Giant Bible of Mainz is one of the last great handwritten Bibles of Europe and it represents hundreds of years of work disseminating the word of God, according to the library's Web site.

The Gutenberg Bible is the first great book printed in Western Europe from movable metal type and it marks a turning point in the art of bookmaking and consequently in the transition from the Middle Ages to the modern world, the Web site reads.

The rest of the collection -- which Dimunation said is ongoing with new acquisitions, and will never be complete -- provides readers with an opportunity to witness 800 years of biblical evolution.

Some of the Bibles are considered significant because of the number of copies printed, the volumes that survive or the massive undertaking that was involved in the distribution, such as the Indian Bible, printed in 1663 in Cambridge, Mass., in the Algonquin language, which was used to evangelize Native Americans, Dimunation said.

"This Bible is also significant because it was the first Bible printed in America," he said.

"There are 16 languages alone in the Bibles from the Thomas Jefferson collection," Dimunation said. "The older Bibles are in Latin. However, we start to see different languages as the years go on, from Hungarian to Arabic. We can reflect on the history of the Bible when we examine these rare and wonderful books."

Though the featured Bibles in the glass-encased exhibits in the library's main hall are as wide as a door frame, some of the Bibles are small enough to fit in an adult hand.

A copy of the Confederate Soldier's Bible printed in 1862 in Augusta, Ga., is small enough to fit in the pocket of a uniform worn by the men who fought for the South in the U.S. Civil War.

The Bible used during the 1861 inauguration of U.S. President Abraham Lincoln isn't necessarily considered a significant book, except for the fact that it was used to swear in the man who is credited with preserving the nation during one of its bleakest periods in history, Dimunation said.

An interesting detail about that Bible is that Roger B. Taney -- the first Catholic appointed chief justice of the U.S., the author of the Dred Scott decision that would indirectly lead to the Civil War and a bitter political rival of Lincoln's -- was required to administer the oath of office to a man he would continue to cross swords with for the next three years.

Most of the rare Bibles were gifts to the library, but others have been purchased, and vary in price depending on their significance, Dimunation said.

"You can't really put a price tag on these books, from a curator's point of view," he said. "We are a major resource for the study of the Bible. We never talk about the money. It gives people the wrong sense of these books, with text that remain a valid expression for all sorts of interests."

Scientology's Role In the Death of Lisa McPherson

http://www.nolanchart.com/article4806.html

Lisa McPherson was a Scientologist who became widely known after her death in suspicious circumstances on 5 December 1995. Lisa is regularly cited by critics of Scientology as an example of what they call the 'abusive practices and procedures' practiced by the Church.

by Gregg (Centrist)
Thursday, September 11, 2008

Background.

Born on the 10th of February, 1959, Lisa lived her early life in Dallas, Texas. She became a Scientologist at the age of eighteen in 1977. For a brief period during the 1980's, she lived in California before moving back to Dallas.

In 1991 Lisa, along with many other Scientologists, wrote a letter of application [1] to join the Cult Awareness Network. This appears to have been part of what Dan Leipold, a former lawyer for the Cult Awareness Network, called "an orchestrated effort" to take over the Cult Awareness Network on behalf of the Church of Scientology [2]. This effort, after extensive and numerous litigation procedures, resulted in the Cult Awareness Network being forced to file for bankruptcy. The Cult Awareness Network is currently being operated by the Foundation for Religious Freedom - a Scientology-related entity.

In 1994 Lisa moved to Clearwater in Florida where she was employed as a sales representative for Agent Media Corporation (also known as AMC Publishing). During this year Lisa spent $75,275 on Scientology services and courses. She also made tax-deducible donations totaling $55,000 [3].

On 24 April 1995, the Tampa Tribune published a letter written by Lisa. She wrote:

"I work for a company that has been using this technology for years, and we have continued to expand and do well as a result. My own personal income has increased over the past five years without ever dropping, and I just got promoted because of the application of all this information." It seems that Lisa was instructed to write this letter and given advice on how to do so [4]. The following October Lisa attained the state of 'clear' [5].

Lisa's death.

Lisa was involved in a car accident on 18 November 1995. Although uninjured by the accident, her behaviour, getting out of her car, removing her clothes, and beginning to walk down the street, suggested mental instability [7]. When asked by paramedics why she had taken off her clothes Lisa replied "I wanted help. I wanted help." [6] Lisa was taken by ambulance to Morton Plant Hospital for a psychiatric evaluation. However, after several Scientologists arrived, she checked out of hospital against medical advice and was taken to the Fort Harrison hotel for 'rest and relaxation.' Lisa's refusal to accept psychiatric help was most likely due to her Scientology beliefs which regard psychiatry as a damaging pseudoscience.

The final 17 days of Lisa's life were spent undergoing an 'introspection rundown', a procedure devised by Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard to "calm a person in the throes of psychosis" [8]. During this time Lisa was "hyperactive, delusional and hallucinating" and "had conversations with people who were not there, claimed to be people she was not, sang and danced around the room as if giving a performance, crawled around on the floor, stood on the toilet, got in the shower fully clothed, tried to walk out of the room in a state of undress and on at least one occasion drank her own urine" [9]. Throughout this period Lisa was being watched by Scientologists who took detailed notes of the events [10].

Lisa's medical condition continued to deteriorate. On 5 December 1995 Scientology staffers contacted Dr. Minkoff, a Scientologist, who advised them to take Lisa to the nearest hospital. Rather than take Dr. Minkoff's advice, the Scientology staffers took Lisa to New Port Richey, the hospital where Dr. Minkoff worked; this hospital is located 45 minutes away from the Fort Harrison hotel. The Scientologists did this out of a fear that Lisa would be admitted to a psychiatric ward if they brought her to another hospital. Lisa was pronounced dead shortly after arrival.

An autopsy was performed on the 6th of December by Joan Wood. Her report concluded that Lisa died from a pulmonary embolism caused by bed rest and severe dehydration. Also detailed in the report was the presence of "several crusted confluent dark brown lesions consistent with 'insect/animal bites'" [11]. Dr. Wood, with reference to the insect bits, stated on air that "No, they are not mosquito bites. They appear to me to be cockroach bites."

The Church of Scientology responded by suing Wood for defamation. After extensive litigation all charges were dropped against the Church [12]. A civil suit brought against the Church by the McPherson family was settled in May of 2004 with the terms being undisclosed [13].

Aftermath.

After the controversy surrounding Lisa's death, the Church of Scientology introduced what has become known as the 'Lisa McPherson clause'. This is a document grants the Church "the right to hold its members in isolation indefinitely, and absolves it of any responsibility for a member's injury or death as a result" [14].

Lisa's death has also been commemorated through candlelight vigils [15] and protests. The most recent, and most famous, of protests commemorating Lisa was held on her birthday of February 10, 2008 by Anonymous [16].


Thursday, September 11, 2008

Rebuttals at OpposingViews.com: Will Intelligent Design's Legal Critics (Americans United) Retract Their Demonstrably False Claims?

http://www.evolutionnews.org/2008/09/objections_to_intelligent_desi.html

Michael Behe and I have posted our first couple objections to the opening statements posted by critics of intelligent design (ID) on OpposingViews.com. Before I discuss those, I want to provide the insightful comments of a friend who read the debates, and wrote me the following:

Just a quick perusal of the discussion page for the "Does Intelligent Design Have Merit" shows how the opponents of ID cannot even address the question from a scientific (methodological) standpoint. Eight of 12 comments on the Yes side deal with the scientific merits of ID and only one of 11 comments on the No side actually deal with scientific critiques of ID. Why can't the opponents of ID respond in a scientific and methodic way to the question posed? Just my humble thoughts as a non-scientist observer.

This lurker makes a great point: Quite tellingly, the vast majority of the critics' opening statements focus on harping upon the alleged religious motives, beliefs, and affiliations of ID proponents, or the larger philosophical implications of ID. I anticipated this tactic, and refuted it in my third opening statement titled, "Any Larger Implications Do Not Disqualify ID From Having Merit."

With more rebuttals to come, Dr. Behe and I have now collectively posted 3 rebuttals to Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, as follows:

The third objection listed above is reprinted here below:

"Will Americans United Retract Their Demonstrably False Claims?"

By Casey Luskin

In its first opening statement, Americans United for the Separation of Church and State (AUSCS) makes various demonstrably false claims while arguing that "Intelligent Design is Unconstitutional." AUSCS's writer is apparently writing anonymously, but I suspect that he or she is a magician, because they think that that AUSCS can make various works published by ID proponents magically disappear simply by asserting that they don't exist. In seriousness, the real question I will pose at the end of this rebuttal is Will the AUSCS be willing to retract its demonstrably false claims?

AUSCS's Demonstrably False Claim #1:

AUSCS claims that ID's "advocates seem unable to get their ideas published in peer-reviewed journals."

This claim is demonstrably false. Intelligent design (ID) proponents have published peer-reviewed scientific articles supporting their pro-ID arguments. A listing of some of these articles can be found online at:

Peer-Reviewed & Peer-Edited Scientific Publications Supporting the Theory of Intelligent Design (Annotated), at http://www.discovery.org/a/2640

As explained on that page, some of the scientific journals and other prestigious academic sources that have published peer-reviewed scientific publications by ID proponents supporting core ID arguments include:

The apparent inability of ID's legal critics to even acknowledge the existence of the peer-reviewed pro-ID scientific articles does not inspire confidence in the strength or validity of their arguments.

AUSCS's Demonstrably False Claim #2:

AUSCS claims that Discovery Institute was "[u]nable to respond to [Judge Jones'] powerful opinion" in the Kitzmiller v. Dover ruling. AUSCS must have missed Discovery Institute's many responses to the Kitzmiller ruling. I should know about these responses: I spent many dozens of hours co-authoring both a book (titled Traipsing Into Evolution: Intelligent Design and the Kitzmiller v. Dover Decision)and a law review article, providing potent rebuttals to Judge Jones' factual and legal claims in the Kitzmiller ruling. Not only did we respond to Judge Jones' arguments in the Kitzmiller ruling in great detail, but to my knowledge our book was the first book published focused entirely on Judge Jones' opinion. The AUSCS deals with our arguments in those rebuttals by claiming that those rebuttals don't exist.

For readers who would like to read our rebuttals (including AUSCS's writer) here are the citations (links are provided in the footnotes, below):

Had AUSCS read those sources, they would have learned that just some of the problems in Judge Jones' Kitzmiller ruling include the fact that he:

AUSCS praises Judge Jones' Kitzmiller ruling, stating, "In promoting ID, the Dover board, Jones wrote, 'consciously chose to change Dover's biology curriculum to advance Religion. We have been presented with a wealth of evidence which reveals that the District's purpose was to advance creationism, an inherently religious view, both by introducing it directly under the label ID…'." Here, I agree with Judge Jones: The Dover Area School District had no idea what it was doing, and it DID have unconstitutional religious motives and they desired to advocate creationism. This is why Discovery Institute opposed Dover attempts to push ID into the curriculum both before and after they passed their ID policy: Dover had no idea what it was doing. As I wrote in my law review article:

"When the testimony at trial revealed the religious motives and questionable conduct of the individual school board members and the poor impression the board members had made upon Judge Jones, it became increasingly clear that the school board would lose. However, the Discovery Institute maintained that there was no reason for the judge to conflate the actions of the school board with those of the 'IDM.' There was also no reason for the judge to try to resolve the scientific controversy over whether a theory that pointed to intelligence as a possible explanation for a scientific phenomenon should be recognized as scientific."

I have no stake in defending everything Dover did: they rejected the policy advice of Discovery Institute and paid for it dearly. Unfortunately, Judge Jones ruled on issues that were far broader than those necessary to resolve the case. For more details, see my fifth opening statement, "ID is Constitutional and has Education and Legal Merit."

AUSCS's Demonstrably False Claim #3:

As will be seen below, AUSCS makes the demonstrably false claim that Discovery Institute's only response to Judge Jones was that we "accused Jones of plagiarizing portions of the ruling." This is another blatantly false claim, for we never accused Judge Jones of plagiarism. In fact, we explicitly explained in our "Backgrounder on the Significance of Judicial Copying, plagiarism was not our argument:

"Are you accusing Judge Jones of plagiarism or any other violation of judicial ethics? No. As the report reads, 'Proposed findings of fact' are prepared to assist judges in writing their opinions, and judges are certainly allowed to draw on them. Indeed, judges routinely invite lawyers to propose findings of fact in order to verify what the lawyers believe to be the key factual issues in the case. Thus, in legal circles Judge Jones' use of the ACLU's proposed 'Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law' would not be considered 'plagiarism' nor a violation of judicial ethics.'"

What part of "Judge Jones' use of the ACLU's proposed 'Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law' would not be considered 'plagiarism' nor a violation of judicial ethics" does AUSCS not understand? For more information, see the original report, "A Comparison of Judge Jones' Opinion in Kitzmiller v. Dover with Plaintiffs' Proposed 'Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law'."

An Answer, and a Question for AUSCS:

Finally, AUSCS asks, "If the IDers have evidence, let's see it." It's easy to pretend there is no scientific evidence for ID when you deny the existence of the peer-reviewed pro-ID scientific publications discussing that evidence. Regardless, my co-particiapnts and I have discussed much of this evidence in our opening statements, including:

My only closing question for AUSCS now is this:

I look forward to AUSCS's response.

Posted by Casey Luskin on September 10, 2008 4:30 PM | Permalink

My Favorite Fraud

http://www.the-scientist.com/article/display/54959/

A paper I read more than 25 years ago taught me a lesson I'll never forget.

I learned to always read the technical details of a paper before I evaluate its conclusions.

Last week I was at a scientific conference in which career development was a major topic. The audience included mostly scientists at an early stage in their careers, but also a few older scientists, like myself, who were to provide advice on how to manage laboratories and careers. Popular discussion topics included how to run lab meetings and deal with the egos of graduate students and postdocs. My particular advice included: Keep current with experimental technologies, and evaluate papers on a technical basis before trusting their conclusions.

I'm sure that this advice sounded to some like the musings of a compulsive technogeek, but it was prompted by an incident that happened when I was a postdoc.

I was a member of a weekly journal club that discussed the latest papers in the field of cell signaling and growth control. All presenters were to provide an assessment of the technical rigor as well as the importance of papers. In the summer of 1982, however, we encountered a paper that was far out of the ordinary.

The paper, by lead author Mark Spector, appeared in Cell and described a remarkable new protein kinase cascade that was proposed to be central to cancer. 1 This was our area of research, and so it sounded particularly exciting. When we read the paper, however, we immediately judged it fraudulent. The scale of the work was impossibly large and yielded the kind of perfect data that we had never seen before. Plus, many aspects of the work made no technical sense. For example, following a six-step heroic purification process involving centrifugation, affinity chromatography, and isoelectric focusing, the researchers obtained 5.8 ug of purified kinase from 10 preparations. However, in the first figure of the paper, they used 15 ug of the purified kinase to show a single stained band on a gel. Huh? Who sacrifices 25 preparations of an enzyme just to show a band on a gel?

This was only one of many obvious problems with this paper. We termed the study "a graduate student fantasy." The senior author, however, was the renowned scientist Effram Racker, so many scientists in the field assumed that the results must be reliable. Being skeptical young scientists, we were not so sure. At a scientific meeting we attended a month later, it was clear that many other investigators were extremely wary of the results.

It was only a couple of months before the news appeared that the paper was fraudulent. Enzymes that were supposed to be phosphorylated turned out to be molecular weight markers radiolabeled with iodine. In fact, all of the numerous findings and hypotheses that appeared in six papers Spector published with Racker were incorrect. Spector denied wrongdoing, but he was expelled from school, and the papers were retracted. Several years later, Racker published a lengthy description of his futile efforts to reproduce the results. 2 History has shown that the results were indeed a fantasy.

Thankfully, fraud this outlandish is rare in biology. What fascinated me the most about the case, however, was the lack of recognition by Racker (and apparently the paper's reviewers) of the technical implausibility of what the authors were describing. Exciting ideas and Racker's past accomplishments apparently blinded him and many other people in the field. The harm to science was minimal, but the damage to Racker's distinguished career was severe. A recent controversy regarding an engineered enzyme in the Duke lab of Homme Hellinga shows that over-optimistic interpretation of experimental results is still a sure-fire way to cast a cloud over your reputation. 3

Ever since the Spector incident, I always read the technical details of a paper before I evaluate its conclusions. I'm not looking for fraud, but instead am trying to understand how critical the authors are being in evaluating their own work. Rigor in the technical design of an experiment is an indication of good scientific judgment by the authors. This also requires that I keep current with experimental technologies, because if I cannot understand the technical basis of a study, I cannot judge its validity. The most important lesson that I have learned from the Spector incident, however, is that self-delusion is probably a greater danger in the laboratory than fraud.

Steven Wiley is a Pacific Northwest National Laboratory Fellow and director of PNNL's Biomolecular Systems Initiative.

References
1. M. Spector et al., "A mouse homolog to the avian sarcoma virus src protein is a member of a protein kinase cascade," Cell, 25:9-21, 1981.
2. E. Racker, "The Warburg effect: two years later," Science, 222:232, 1983.
3. http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/eletters/319/5863/569b

Creationism Vs. Evolution

http://www.sciam.com/report.cfm?id=creationism-vs-evolution

The controversy over evolution rages on. Win all your debates against creationists with the science in our special report.

Teachers should tackle creationism, says science education expert

http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2008/sep/11/creationism.education

Michael Reiss, director of education at the Royal Society, says excluding discussion of creationism and intelligent design from science lessons could put some children off science completely

James Randerson, science correspondent guardian.co.uk, Thursday September 11 2008 15:47 BST

Creationism and intelligent design should be taught in school science lessons, according to a leading expert in science education.

The Rev Prof Michael Reiss, director of education at the Royal Society, said that excluding alternatives to scientific explanations for the origin of life and the universe from science lessons was counterproductive and would alienate some children from science altogether.

He said that around one in 10 children comes from a family with creationist beliefs. "My experience after having tried to teach biology for 20 years is if one simply gives the impression that such children are wrong, then they are not likely to learn much about the science," he said.

"I think a better way forward is to say to them 'look, I simply want to present you with the scientific understanding of the history of the universe and how animals and plants and other organisms evolved'."

Reiss said he used to be an "evangelist" for evolution in the classroom, but that the approach had backfired. "I realised that simply banging on about evolution and natural selection didn't lead some pupils to change their minds at all. Now I would be more content simply for them to understand it as one way of understanding the universe," he said.

Reiss, who is an ordained Church of England minister, told the British Association Festival of Science in Liverpool that science teachers should not see creationism as a "misconception" but as an alternative "world view". He added that he was not advocating devoting the same time to teaching creationism or intelligent design as to evolution.

Reiss's comments have provoked fury from some parts of the scientific community. "Creationism is based on faith and has nothing to do with science, and it should not be taught in science classes," said Prof Lewis Wolpert, a developmental biologist at University College London. "There is no evidence for a creator, and creationism explains nothing."

He said creationism should be taught in religious studies lessons.

"Science lessons are not the appropriate place to discuss creationism, which is a world view in total denial of any form of scientific evidence," said Dr John Fry, a physicist at the University of Liverpool.

He said challenging evolution scientifically was appropriate in school science classes. But he added: "Creationism doesn't challenge science, it denies it."

Reiss agreed that creationism and intelligent design are not scientific theories, but he said that did not automatically exclude them from science lessons. "Just because something lacks scientific support doesn't seem to me a sufficient reason to omit it from the science lesson … there is much to be said for allowing students to raise any doubts they have – hardly a revolutionary idea in science teaching – and doing one's best to have a genuine discussion."

He added that good teaching meant respecting students' views. "I do believe in taking seriously and respectfully the concerns of students who do not accept the theory of evolution while still introducing them to it," he said.

Prof John Bryant, professor emeritus of cell and molecular biology at the University of Exeter, agreed that alternative viewpoints should be discussed in science classes. "If the class is mature enough and time permits, one might have a discussion on the alternative viewpoints. However, I think we should not present creationism (or intelligent design) as having the same status as evolution."

Reiss also criticised Prof Richard Dawkins' argument that labelling children as belonging to a particular religion amounted to child abuse. Dawkins has written that, "To slap a label on a child at birth – to announce, in advance … an infant's opinions on the cosmos and creation, on life and afterlives, on sexual ethics, abortion and euthanasia – is a form of mental child abuse."

Reiss said he understood Dawkins' point, but said: "This is an inappropriate and insulting use of the phrase child abuse as anybody who has ever worked – as incidentally I have over many years with children who have been either sexually or physically abused – knows."

guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2008

No Evolution in Scare Tactics About Teaching Creationism

http://www.evolutionnews.org/2008/09/if_its_september_its_time.html

If it's September, it's time for creationism in schools. That's how some would like it, anyway.

I'm beginning to the think that the some who want it this way are the Darwinists. Ever so often we're subjected to the witty headline proclaiming the evolution of creationism. Scientific American doesn't disappoint, trotting out this well worn cliche to top off their tired scare tactic of make-believing that every school in the land is on the verge of a year's worth of teaching Biblical creationism. (Not to mention misrepresenting Sarah Palin.) Of course, no such thing is happening.

The truth is that the key public policy question today is not whether creationism or intelligent design should be required in classrooms (even the major ID proponents don't want that), but whether scientists, teachers, and students should have the academic freedom to discuss the scientific evidence that challenges Darwin's theory as well as the evidence that supports it. In short, the current public policy debate over the teaching of evolution is about academic freedom and free speech.

Science journals are already filled with debates over whether microevolution can be extrapolated to explain macroevolution, whether random mutations are a true source of major evolutionary innovations, and whether a gradual Darwinian process can account for events in the history of life like the Cambrian explosion some 500 million years ago. If scientists can debate these issues in their science journals, why can't students discuss them in the classroom?

Polls since 2001 have consistently showed that the vast majority of the American public wants to see evolution taught, but taught with full disclosure.

Posted by Robert Crowther on September 11, 2008 10:00 AM | Permalink

Natural Cures Pack Dangerous Chemicals

http://www.livescience.com/health/080911-bad-herbal-medicine.html

By Christopher Wanjek, LiveScience's Bad Medicine Columnist

posted: 11 September 2008 12:04 pm ET

Christopher Wanjek is the author of the books "Bad Medicine" and "Food At Work." His Bad Medicine column appears each Tuesday on LiveScience.

A team from Boston University found that more than 20 percent of nearly 200 samples of various ayurvedic cures contained dangerous amounts of lead, arsenic and mercury. Sometimes the presence of metals was a result of sloppy manufacturing; other times the metals were added deliberately as part of the cure.

The authors — who are advocates of alternative medicine and include an ayurvedic practitioner as well as a lead poisoning expert from India — said they hope their report can help separate wheat from chaff, that is, the useful elements from the ayurvedic tradition from the real whacky stuff.

Problems with ayurveda

India is proud of its ayurvedic tradition, which dates back over 7,000 years and likely predates Traditional Chinese Medicine. By 1000 BCE, when Europeans were still living in mud and beating each other with clubs, Indian doctors used the principles of ayurveda to drain fluids, sew wounds, remove kidney stones and even perform cosmetic surgery.

For the most part, the ayurvedic tradition — which incorporates yoga, meditation and diet — makes for a healthy lifestyle.

But the safety and efficacy of some ayurvedic cures are questionable, because often they incorporate chants and are based on astrology, personality traits, pulse readings, a supposed imbalance of three bodily humors (called vata, pitta and kapha, like China's yin and yang) and other discredited beliefs. Your herbal cure for, say, a bad cough might be different from the next person's as a result of your birthday and Mars being aligned with Jupiter.

Among these odd elements of ayurveda, the JAMA report targets a practice called rasa shastra, which uses mercury and other metals as curatives. Nearly half of the rasa shastra remedies tested had dangers levels of metals; several were 10,000 times over the U.S. safety limit.

Regardless whether you are a Leo or a Capricorn, that's not healthy. So the authors called into question the entire practice of rasa shastra.

India strikes back

Some folks in India didn't take the JAMA report lightly. The Indian Ministry of Health and Family Welfare issued a press release last week that stated:

"It needs to be emphasized that as per the directions issued by Department of AYUSH, herbo-metallic compounds are not being officially exported because of heavy metal concerns and only purely herbal Ayurveda, Unani and Siddha medicines are being exported from India with effect from 1st January 2006 after certification of heavy metals below the permissible limit by the manufacturing unit."

Read between the line, and this implies (a) herbo-metallic compounds still exist in India as part of the ayurvedic tradition; (b) herbo-metallic compounds are being unofficially exported; and (c) and herbo-metallic compounds used to be exported until European and American researchers exposed the practice.

The lead author on JAMA report, Robert Saper, was in fact one of the pesky researchers in 2004 who revealed the fact that more than 20 percent of imported ayurvedic cures in Boston's South Asian grocery stories had illegal levels of toxic metals.

Know your source

Ayurveda has gained popularity in the United States with promoters such as Deepak Chopra, who charges thousands of dollars for seminars about how ayurveda can improve your golf game. The tradition has become somewhat elitist in the United States, with ayurvedic spas, soaps, candles and other luxury items.

Many likely don't know nor want to know about the idiosyncrasies of ayurveda. (We haven't addressed the use of cow urine and dung.) Ayurveda, after all, has much going for it.

But when experimenting with traditional medicines, particularly when you are outside of that culture, it's prudent to understand what you are getting into. The Boston University team is one group of alternative medicine advocates who want to legitimize useful ancient therapies not because they are ancient but because they work.

© Imaginova Corp.


Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Jeremy Thomas to make Darwin film

http://entertainment.timesonline.co.uk/tol/arts_and_entertainment/film/article4702719.ece

Dalya Alberge

From Times OnlineSeptember 8, 2008

Evolution or God, natural selection or divine intervention? Almost 200 years after his birth, the debate over Charles Darwin's origin of our species still rages.

With Sarah Palin, John McCain's new Republican running-mate, advocating that Creationism be taught alongside evolution in schools, the debate is now set to move into cinemas worldwide with a major film about the great scientist being created by one of Britain's foremost Oscar-winning film-makers.

Jeremy Thomas, whose epic The Last Emperor was showered with nine Oscars, begins a nine-week shoot on September 29 for Creation, about the 19th-century genius who transformed the way we understand the natural world. Faithful to historical fact, the film will explore how Darwin's theory about the survival of the fittest evolved from the grief he experienced over his eldest daughter's untimely death at the age of ten.

It will show how, as a devoted father, the loss of Annie - probably to tuberculosis - shook Darwin's belief in Christianity and a deity that could cause such "suffering". Torn between his love for his deeply religious wife and his own growing belief in a world where God has no place, he went on to produce his theory of natural selection which became the foundation of modern evolutionary studies.

The film's release next year will coincide with Darwin's bicentennial celebrations and the 150th anniversary of On the Origin of Species, the book which both scandalised and revolutionised the Victorian world in explaining how life evolved on Earth.

Darwin could not be more topical today, Mr Thomas said: "In this age of raging debate about natural selection and Creationism, I think it is a very timely story to tell. It's an intimate film with big ideas."

Creation will be directed by Jon Amiel, who made his name with The Singing Detective, the acclaimed television drama, before going on to direct films such as Entrapment and Sommersby.

He said: "Darwin is still highly controversial. He provokes astonishingly passionate reactions. To some, [his theory is] as obvious a fact as Newton's laws of gravity. To others, it's an abhorrent doctrine."

Darwin's great-great grandson, Randal Keynes, said: "If the film prompts people to think about how they should tackle the issue - particularly how they should face up to uncomfortable implications - then it will be worthwhile."

Paul Bettany, one of Britain's most acclaimed actors, and his real-life wife, Jennifer Connelly, the Oscar-winning Hollywood star, have been cast as Darwin and his wife, Emma, who played an important role in urging Darwin to publish his book and face condemnation by the Church of England for contradicting the belief in divine creation.

Speaking to The Times yesterday, Mr Amiel described Bettany as an Oscar-winner in waiting, noting that he could not be more physically perfect to play Darwin in his forties: "Paul is 6ft2, lean and gangly, with sandy colouring and a high-domed forehead, exactly as Darwin was."

Mr Thomas added: "We think of Darwin as an old man with a grey beard. The reality of our story is very different."

The screenplay - by John Collee, whose box-office hits include Master and Commander and Happy Feet - is based on "Annie's Box" by Mr Keynes, who is a consultant to the production.

Keynes's poignant book was inspired by his discovery of Annie's writing-case among some family belongings. It contained mementoes, including a lock of her hair and Darwin's grief-stricken account of the illness that robbed him of "the joy of the household" in 1851. After her death, her father who had studied divinity stopped going to church, accompanying his family only as far as the door.

The film is not a drama-documentary or a period picture, but the producers intend to deal thoroughly with the theories on evolution in a manner that will spark debate among audiences.

Mr Amiel said. "It's a powerful, emotional account of a man and his family going through an extraordinarily turbulent time."

Part of the filming will take place at Down House, Darwin's actual home in the village of Downe in Kent. Its first floor and gardens remain as Darwin would recognise them. It was there that he turned the gardens into an outdoor laboratory for the most explosive experiments in the history of science.