NTS LogoSkeptical News for 30 January 2009

Archive of previous NTS Skeptical News listings

Friday, January 30, 2009

Attenborough on evolution


BBC naturalist Sir David Attenborough receives hate mail from Christians saying he will "burn in hell" for not crediting God in his programmes.

The veteran broadcaster was talking to the Radio Times about a new documentary series on Charles Darwin to mark the bicentennial of his birth.

Charles Darwin And The Tree Of Life also marks 150 years since publication of On The Origin Of Species.

Attenborough has attacked the teaching of creationism in schools as an alternative to evolution.

"It's like saying that two and two equals four, but if you wish to believe it, it could also be five," he said.

"Evolution is not a theory; it is a fact, every bit as much as the historical fact that William the Conqueror landed in 1066," he told the Radio Times.

Universities drop degree courses in alternative medicine


Alexandra Frean, Education Editor
From The Times January 30, 2009

Universities are increasingly turning their backs on homoeopathy and complementary medicine amid opposition from the scientific community to "pseudo-science" degrees.

The University of Salford has stopped offering undergraduate degrees in the subjects, and the University of Westminster announced yesterday that it plans to strengthen the "science base" content of its courses after an internal review which examined their scientific credibility.

Both universities are following the lead of the University of Central Lancashire, which last year stopped recruiting new students to its undergraduate degree in homoeopathic medicine.

The decisions by Salford and Westminster open a new chapter in the fierce debate about the place of awarding of Bachelor of Science degrees in subjects that are not science.

Several universities run degree courses in complementary medicine, which include a range of therapies including homoeopathy, crystal healing and herbal medicine. But academics opposed to such courses regard them as misleading and damaging to the reputation of the universities that offer them.

In a letter to The Times today a group of scientists led by Professor David Colquhoun, a pharmacologist at University College London, say that they are encouraged that such courses are being closed down. However, they add that although some universities are now taking sensible actions in cancelling such courses, government policy on regulation of alternative medicine is in a mess because there is no official view on "which treatments work and which don't".

The University of Salford said it planned to wind down the undergraduate programme in traditional Chinese medicine "for financial and strategic reasons".

He acknowledged that the course had been criticised by the scientific establishment, but said that the university would continue "to encourage and promote research into complementary and alternative medicine".

He added: "It is not our role to comment on the views of others."

A spokesman for the University of Central Lancashire said that it would not be drawn into a debate about the scientific basis of certain forms of complementary medicine. However, he accepted that some of its courses had attracted "bad publicity" and said the university had commissioned a review of its courses in this area, which would be published at the end of March.

"We have had academic debate within the university on whether these courses are scientific or not," he said.

A spokesman for the University of Westminster said the university had recently undertaken a review of its undergraduate Complementary Therapies courses as part of an internal restructure.

"The review recommended that the delivery of the courses' distinctive scientific base be reinforced, along with the capacity of the department to conduct high quality research with due academic rigour," he said.

He would not say whether the review had been ordered as a direct result of criticism of the courses, adding only that "graduates will continue to receive a grounding in scientific understanding and analysis".

Other universities have got around "pseudo science" accusations by offering such courses as arts degrees. The University Campus Suffolk, for example, offers a two-year foundation degree in holistic therapy as an arts course.

Other universities are more robust in their defence of their courses.

Ian Appleyard, principal lecturer in acupuncture at London South Bank University, said that acupuncture should be studied for the very reason that it was not well understood from the standpoint of Western scientific medicine. Acupuncture had been used by a significant proportion of the world's population for thousands of years.

"Recent large-scale clinical trials such Haake and meta-analysis from reputable institutions such as The Cochrane Collaboration, have shown that there is evidence to support the therapeutic benefits of acupuncture treatment for back pain and migraine," he said.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Billion-year Revision Of Plant Evolution Timeline May Stem From Discovery Of Lignin In Seaweed


ScienceDaily (Jan. 29, 2009) — Land plants' ability to sprout upward through the air, unsupported except by their own woody tissues, has long been considered one of the characteristics separating them from aquatic plants, which rely on water to support them.

Now lignin, one of the chemical underpinnings vital to the self-supporting nature of land plants – and thought unique to them – has been found in marine algae by a team of researchers including scientists at UBC and Stanford University.

Lignin, a principal component of wood, is a glue-like substance that helps fortify cell walls and is instrumental in the transport of water in many plants.

In a study published in today's issue of the journal Current Biology, lead author Patrick Martone and colleagues describe using powerful chemical and microscopic anatomy techniques to identify and localize lignin within cell walls of a red alga that thrives along the wave-swept California coast. Martone conducted the work described in the paper while a graduate student and postdoctoral researcher in the laboratory of co-author Mark Denny, Professor of Biology at Stanford's Hopkins Marine Station.

"All land plants evolved from aquatic green algae and scientists have long believed that lignin evolved after plants took to land as a mechanical adaptation for stabilizing upright growth and transporting water from the root," says Martone, an assistant professor in the UBC Dept. of Botany, where he is continuing his work on lignin.

"Because red and green algae likely diverged more than a billion years ago, the discovery of lignin in red algae suggests that the basic machinery for producing lignin may have existed long before algae moved to land."

Alternatively, algae and land plants may have evolved the identical compound independently, after they diverged.

"The pathways, enzymes and genes that go into making this stuff are pretty complicated, so to come up with all those separately would be really, really amazing," says Denny. "Anything is possible, but that would be one hell of a coincidence."

The team's finding provides a new perspective on the early evolution of lignified support tissues – such as wood – on land, since the seaweed tissues that are most stressed by waves crashing on shore appear to contain the most lignin, possibly contributing to mechanical support, says Martone.

The new discovery may affect one of the ways land plants are distinguished from aquatic algae in textbooks – by the presence of lignin. It is also of interest to biofuel researchers since lignin binds cell walls and prevents the extraction of cellulose, a key component in biofuel production.

Funded primarily by the U.S. National Science Foundation and the U.S. Department of Energy, Martone says the research team has started looking for billion-year-old lignin genes that might be shared among land plants and red algae, and has started exploring whether lignin exists in other aquatic algae and what role it plays in the evolution and function of aquatic plants.

Journal reference:

Martone et al. Discovery of Lignin in Seaweed Reveals Convergent Evolution of Cell-Wall Architecture. Current Biology, 2009; 19 (2): 169 DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2008.12.031

Adapted from materials provided by University of British Columbia, via EurekAlert!, a service of AAAS.

Creationism defeated in Texas


17:50 26 January 2009 by Andy Coghlan

For similar stories, visit the US national issues and Evolution Topic Guides

Campaigners against the teaching of creationism in science lessons last week celebrated a key victory in Texas.

In meetings to revise science standards in Texan schools, the 15 members of the Texas State Board of Education elected to get rid of wording which has allowed the standing of evolution to be attacked for 20 years in Texan science lessons.

The offending wording invites teachers and students to debate "strengths and weaknesses" of scientific theories. In practice, this was used as a pretext to attack evolution in lessons and textbooks.

"Removing the concept of 'strengths and weaknesses', when the supposed weaknesses are completely bogus, is a real victory," says Michael Zimmerman of Butler University in Indianapolis, Indiana, and a campaigner against creationism.

"Its removal is a huge step forward," said Eugenie Scott, executive director of the National Center for Science Education in Oakland, California, and a witness at board meetings last week in Austin, Texas.

Anti-evolution campaign

The clash in Texas is the latest between creationists, orchestrated by the pro-creationism Discovery Institute in Seattle, Washington, and mainstream scientists.

It follows a much larger test case in 2005 in the town of Dover, Pennsylvania, in which the Discovery Institute argued unsuccessfully for science lessons to include "intelligent design" - the idea that the universe is so complex that it must have been created by an unspecified designer. The trial exposed intelligent design to be creationism by another name.

The meetings last week were tense, as the elected board was finely split between creationists and scientists. Zimmerman says that six, including the chairman Don McLeroy, are creationists, and seven are definitely pro-science, leaving two "floaters" holding the balance of each vote.

In most cases, science had the edge eight to seven. But the creationists did manage to slip through some late amendments, mainly because of abstentions by members demanding more scientific advice on the matter before deciding.

Transitional fossils

The most serious amendment, one of five in the standards for teaching Earth in space and time, sought to throw doubt on the validity of the fossil record as solid evidence for evolution.

The previous text invited students to: "evaluate a variety of fossil types, transitional fossils, fossil lineages, and significant fossil deposits with regard to their appearance, completeness and rate and diversity of evolution".

The altered text, introduced by creationist member Barbara Cargill, slipped the phrase "proposed transitional fossils" into the text, implying unwarranted doubt about whether transitional fossils are genuinely evolutionary staging posts as species changed.

"Transitional fossils are not 'proposed'," says geologist Steven Schafersman, president of the campaign group Texas Citizens for Science. "There is no doubt about their existence, so insertion of the word 'proposed' makes that part unscientific, since it suggests a false uncertainty."

Common descent

Secondly, Cargill scrapped the final clause altogether, replacing it with an invitation for students to "assess the arguments for and against universal common descent in the light of this fossil evidence".

In other words, she sought to stimulate unwarranted debate about common descent, the idea that all life arose through evolution.

"This change is by far the most unscientific revision, and is completely unacceptable," says Schafersman. "There are no good arguments in modern science 'against universal common descent', which has been accepted by biologists for over 130 years, so the phrase is asking for something that authors and publishers cannot honestly supply."

In essence, says Schafersman, "the added phrase supports an anti-evolution intent which is not scientific."

No more creationism?

The board is to agree the final text of the draft standard at a meeting on 26-27 March. The hope is that all the anti-evolution amendments can be removed then.

If they are, then Texas schoolbooks will be free of them for at least 10 years. But failure to remove them could lead to spread of the resultant pro-creationist standards to other states.

In the time between now and then, Zimmerman urges people to visit "Teach them Science", a site that he has helped set up through his "Clergy Project" initiative launched in 2006 to promote acceptance of evolution by churchgoers. The site was set up jointly with The Center for Inquiry, a secular group.

School in Clear Over Teaching Biblical View of Creation


Posted: Wednesday, 28 January 2009, 9:00 (EST)

A Christian school that teaches a biblical view of creation has been cleared of breaching state curriculum requirements for the teaching of evolution. The NSW Board of Studies has found that Pacific Hills Christian School has met its requirements for teaching the science syllabus, including evolution. The board said it had not substantiated a complaint about how science was taught at the school. Its investigation involved an assessment by the school's overseeing body, Christian Schools Australia, and its own inspection of curriculum and teaching materials.

The board's curriculum director was given access to the school's intranet to review the school's curriculum documents. The director also observed several science classes and class work on evolution. The board's science inspector reviewed the school's educational programs for science, including student work samples and assessment tasks. A board spokeswoman said the reports found the school was meeting its science curriculum requirements and this was endorsed by the board's registration committee.

An inquiry by Christian Schools Australia also cleared the school of failing its duty to teach evolution theory appropriately. The head of Christian Schools Australia, Stephen O'Doherty, said: "It was a very thorough process in which the Board of Studies conducted its own inquiries and came to its own conclusions based on empirical evidence, and it is very pleasing that they confirmed the findings that our registration system made."

The original complaint was made by the former president of the Secondary Principals Council, Chris Bonnor. He raised his concerns after viewing a sample of how science was taught at Pacific Hills on an SBS television program. He said "I remain concerned that the Board of Studies has not commented on the appropriateness of advice given to students in the lesson. I want to know whether it is appropriate for a science teacher to exhort students to consider what the scriptures show you, so that you can come to some clear understanding about your view of evolution."

The NSW Greens MP John Kaye said the board's ruling set a dangerous precedent that had "opened the floodgates to a religious invasion of the curriculum". The board had failed in its duty to protect the integrity of the science curriculum, he said. "Every fundamentalist private school in NSW will be emboldened by this decision."

In response, the board said its position on teaching evolution as evidence-based science had not changed and it was satisfied Pacific Hills had complied with its curriculum requirement. The board spokeswoman said: "Parents are entitled to choose schools for their children that support their own beliefs. However, it has been repeatedly made clear to faith-based schools that creationism is not part of the mandatory science curriculum, and will not be assessed in the mandatory School Certificate science test."

Source: Australia Prayer Network

Letter: BESE hailed for backing creationism


Published: Jan 28, 2009 - Page: 6B - UPDATED: 12:05 a.m.

The Board of Elementary and Secondary Education members should be complimented for their efforts to bring God back into the public schools with promoting creationism as an alternative to the hoax of evolution currently taught.

The Advocate's opinion staff members have exposed their own atheistic views of a Creation without a Creator. Or maybe they are just "religious" writers who claim a form of godliness on weekends, but deny the power of a Creator in their daily lives.

They seem to be attempting to mock the so-called "backward" who actually have relationship with God.

If any unbeliever is intellectually honest with himself, he should look "backward" to the time he was a mere mass of matter and spirit composed of complex organic cells no bigger than the size of a period used in a sentence in this paper. Then, just maybe, an open heart and mind will be convinced that an Intelligent Designer did indeed make such a miraculous human being.

It's just a shame some are too foolish to understand that all of creation demands the existence of a Creator.

Those who are too stupid to appreciate the gift of life given to them by God will one day meet their Maker as all do. During that time, I would suspect they would want to redact their worthless tripe about His nonexistence.

And to BESE's credit, it is giving the opportunity to a confused generation to know the truth revealed in the Bible.

Just what are The Advocate editors so afraid of that couldn't be taught in school? That the hoax of evolution can't compete with the truth of God.

Ed Gallagher
chemist-technical sales
Baton Rouge

Texas Creationists Finally Defeated by Evolutionists


School lessons will now be impartial

By Tudor Vieru, Science Editor

27th of January 2009, 10:08 GMT

It's no secret to anyone that most people in Texas are very religious, and that they adopt a very strict code when it comes to their beliefs. However, at times, their zeal can be overwhelming, and thus they have ended up in a situation where the fundamental truths of the evolution theory have been contradicted by biblical quotes. Text books have been allowed to spread doubt among students, and question the internationally-approved theories, just for the benefit of some. Now, adepts of the theory of evolution have managed to obtain the removal of dangerous wording from text books, which will hopefully reduce the influence of religious fanatics on young minds.

For 20 years, Texas teachers have been allowed to abuse an erroneous formulation in school text books, which said that the class should analyze "strengths and weaknesses" of the theories presented. In fact, this was used as an excuse by teachers to inoculate doubt into the minds of youngsters as to the theory of evolution, and to push the "word of god into their minds."

"Removing the concept of 'strengths and weaknesses,' when the supposed weaknesses are completely bogus, is a real victory," Michael Zimmerman from the Butler University in Indianapolis, Indiana, who is a part of the campaign against creationism, says.

However, the hearings with the committee have not passed without a hitch. Creationists have managed to slip unfair amendments to various scientific formulations, such as for instance when they have casted doubt on the role of fossils as part of our history.

Instead of seeking to "evaluate a variety of fossil types, transitional fossils, fossil lineages, and significant fossil deposits with regard to their appearance, completeness and rate and diversity of evolution," they have introduced the phrase "proposed transitional fossils," which automatically implies that evolution is just a supposition.

"Transitional fossils are not 'proposed'. There is no doubt about their existence, so insertion of the word 'proposed' makes that part unscientific, since it suggests a false uncertainty," Texas Citizens for Science group campaign president geologist Steven Schafersman argues.

Another amendment invites students to "assess the arguments for and against universal common descent in the light of this fossil evidence," an idea that infers that not all life came from the same common source.

"This change is by far the most unscientific revision, and is completely unacceptable. There are no good arguments in modern science 'against universal common descent,' which has been accepted by biologists for over 130 years, so the phrase is asking for something that authors and publishers cannot honestly supply," Schafersman concludes.

Darwin versus Creationism - the great debate


By Kate Whiting
Wednesday, 28 January 2009

Just weeks before naturalists prepare to commemorate the bicentenary of the birth of Charles Darwin, it was reported that a third of science teachers believed creationism should be taught in their lessons.

Last month's Ipsos Mori poll showed that 37% of primary and secondary teachers felt creationism should be 'taught' alongside evolution and the Big Bang theory, while 65% agreed that creationism should be 'discussed' in schools — statistics that would no doubt have Darwin rolling in his grave.

It is perhaps testament to the ongoing impact of the evolutionary scientist's work that the debate over how to tackle alternative versions of the origin of the world is still waging on, some 150 years after he published The Origin Of Species.

But what exactly do creationists believe, why all the controversy and what actually is or should be discussed in the science classroom?


Millions around the world, including Jews, Muslims and Christians, have long shared the belief that God created the universe and everything in it.

But 'Young Earth Creationism' is the more specific belief that the earth has only existed for the last 6,000 years and that each species was created separately by God — as suggested in Genesis, the first book of the Bible.

Scientific evidence, meanwhile, indicates that the planet and all the species on it developed over a period of 4,000 or 5,000 million years.

As an ordained Church of England minister and a leading biologist, Professor Michael Reiss is perhaps better placed than most to speak on the subject.

Reiss resigned from his post as director of education at the Royal Society in September 2008 after saying that creationism should be discussed in science lessons if students raised the issue. The society said some of his comments could be misinterpreted, which could damage its reputation.

"I'm entirely comfortable with the scientific understanding of the age of the universe, the evolution of life and I'm not a creationist or never have been," he says.

"But what's interesting is that there is a very large number of people who live within a creationist world view. As somebody who works in science education, one of my interests is what should we do with young people who have creationist views or come from creationist families?"

Reiss says that some 40% of children in the US are thought to hold creationist views. However, creationism is not uniquely a Christian belief.

Reiss believes the growing number of creationists in the UK is partly due to "an increasing tendency in Christian churches to insist that a creationist understanding of scripture is valid" and partly because of the growing Muslim population.

"By and large, Muslims are more likely to be creationist than non-Muslims," he says.

There are several different interpretations of how exactly God created the universe, all of which could be called creationist.

The book of Genesis in the Bible describes how God made the heavens and earth in just six days, then rested on the seventh.

Non-creationist Christians believe the story in Genesis is simply a metaphor, while creationists fall into two camps — some believing the days to be literally 24 hours and others advocating a 'Day Age' belief that each day represents an eon.


In the 1600s it was seen as an important task to try and establish the age of the world from evidence in The Bible.

Irish Anglican archbishop James Ussher did just that, and in 1650 published a chronology of the world that calculated the date of creation as October 23, 4004BC, thus paving the way for Young Earth Creationism.

Two hundred years and much scientific thinking later, Darwin would revolutionise our understanding of how all life came about, which in turn shaped creationist thought.

Dr Mathew Guest, a lecturer in theology and religion at Durham University and contributor to forthcoming volume Genesis After Darwin, picks up the story.

"Within the last 150 years, there have been various attempts among certain Christian camps to establish creationism with greater rigour, in response to the rise of Darwinism," he explains. "In the mid 1800s, groups like the Plymouth Brethren viewed the bible as a document by which we can map the history of the world, from its origins to the end times."

Then came the fundamentalist movement in the United States in the early 20th century, which published pamphlets affirming what they saw as the "non-negotiable core of Christian faith".

But Guest says evolution was actually accepted by some early fundamentalists.

"In the pamphlets published as The Fundamentals, some writers acknowledged the legitimacy of evolution, they didn't have a problem with it — it was accepted by some as the means by which God created the earth, and was not a focus of controversy or division."

The 1920s saw the controversial Scopes Monkey Trial in Tennessee, where local teacher John Scopes was put on trial for teaching evolution — which was then illegal under state law.

The case was overturned, but the trial drew the attention of the media and the public with important consequences for the status of the creationist cause.

"In the United States, the media so ridiculed proponents of the pro-Genesis account as backward, uneducated and ignorant, that they became discredited in the eyes of the public and retreated from public life," Guest says. The 1960s saw the development of the Creation Science movement, which attempted to find geological evidence for Bible stories like the flood recounted in Genesis.

"The 1980s saw the emergence of intelligent design, which attempts to use the methods of science to establish an alternative set of explanations to Darwinism about the origins of the world, but it doesn't rely on the Bible," Guest says. "It looks for design in the world and presents that as evidence of an intelligent designer."


Reiss was on the working party that drew up the Department for Children, Schools and Families' advice to schools about how to tackle creationism in 2007.

It stipulates that "the theory of evolution lies at the heart of biology and should be taught at key stage 4 and in GCE advanced biology. Creationism and intelligent design are not scientific theories and do not form part of the science National Curriculum". But the guidelines also recognise the need to "respect" students' religious views if questions about creationism arise in science lessons.

"I've taught in schools and I've taught post-grads and undergraduates and over the past 25 years I've met lots of creationist pupils," Reiss says.

"If we ignore their point of view, what happens in my judgment is they're less likely to ever really get to grips with understanding the scientific theories of evolution and the history of the universe."


As Darwin's bicentenary approaches there are staunch advocates on either side who make any hopes of some kind of reconciliation seem unlikely.

"It polarises people and I don't think that's necessarily helpful," says Guest.

"The classic example is Richard Dawkins (author of The God Delusion). There you have someone who is not only passionate about what he sees as the groundless nature of creationist ideas but also about alerting the public to the potentially damaging consequences of believing in them.

"Dawkins' work is valuable in raising such important questions within the public sphere, but it risks reinforcing a perception among the public that there are simply two different, mutually exclusive positions available to them. The range of possibilities available and the diversity of people advocating each of them means that the situation is simply much more complicated than this model might suggest."

So what of the future for creationism?

"One future which I hope we don't have in the UK is that we become more and more like the situation in the US, in other words, a larger proportion of people are creationists and it becomes more and more difficult to discuss and teach evolution in schools and society becomes increasingly polarised," Reiss says.

"Another possibility, which the optimist in me hopes is the case, is that precisely because there is now more discussion about these issues, we end up with a consensus about the role of education in both RE lessons and science lessons teaching in this area and there's eventually a better understanding among people both of science and religion."

Campaign hypes creationism event


Pat Lohmann
Issue date: 1/28/09 Section: News

Members of the "Are You a Monkey?" group have left chalk drawings around UNM and launched a cryptic Web site in support of creationism.

Are you a monkey?

Chalk drawings have appeared all over campus asking this question, prompting more than 1,200 hits on RUAMonkey.com.

The Web site features a video of about 20 people wearing monkey masks and dancing to Michael Jackson's "Thriller" on the steps leading into Smith Plaza.

The mysterious artwork and bare-bones Web site are part of an effort by Calvary Chapel and Renovate Campus Ministries to publicize a creationism-themed event in mid-February.

Renovate members wished not to disclose the name and date of the event.

"I think people are really skeptical on our view of how we were made," said Candice Cunningham, a freshman and member of Renovate. "So coming right out and saying it … kind of turns people off, so I think advertising this way engages people more."

However, some students find the stunt misleading, regardless of their opinion on the origins of man.

"I think it's misleading because you watch the video and there's no other information on the page - just the video itself," sophomore Alex Jordan said. "So when I went to the Web site, all I saw was a video of people dancing around in monkey masks, and I left the page after a minute because I thought it was useless."

Matt Carlson, producer of the "Are You a Monkey?" video, said his intention was not to trick anyone into becoming a fan but to raise awareness.

"It's not to mislead anybody. It basically is to just draw awareness, and then once everyone is aware, then we let everything be known," he said.

Carlson said he was inspired by a similar stunt performed by entrepreneur Marc Ecko in which a retired 747 airplane was painted to look like Air Force One before being covered in graffiti artwork.

"For a whole week, they didn't tell anybody, and the president thought it was real," Carlson said. "Everybody thought it was a real deal. It was just a really cool thing. That was basically my whole intent behind it."

Jordan said he supports creationism but that this method of spreading the message is ineffective.

"Personally, I just didn't get the connection," he said. "Somebody that might be interested in the movie they're trying to promote would be turned off, like I was, to a video that seems to have no relationship to anything."

Carlson said that the theme of the campus-wide artwork was timed to coincide with national Darwin Week.

"Basically, Darwin Day is coming up, and Darwin's whole idea is that we came from monkeys, so that's where it all came from," he said.

Carlson said people have had varying interpretations of the project.

"People had different ideas, like some people thought that it was some sort of Obama thing, which it totally isn't," he said. "That was odd."

Cunningham said he doesn't think the video and chalk artwork are in bad taste.

"If they feel tricked, that's not what we're trying to do," she said. "We're just trying to publicize it more."

Jordan said he wished the video had been more direct.

"I think it would have been better if they provided more information on the Web site as to what this movement was," he said. "I mean, 'are you a monkey?' I guess that's pretty clever, but the Web site was unclear."

Evolution Deals Blow To Creationism in Texas


Visit: Author's Website

By: Nathan Batoon

Mainstream science has won the latest battle in the war being waged over the origin of the world.

The teaching of creationism – which states that God created the world and human beings – was dealt a blow in Texas this week, according to Andy Coghlan, a reporter for ABC News.

On a one-vote margin, the 15 member Texas State Board of Education stripped out of Texas science standards for public schools, creationist language that suggests there are weaknesses in evolution theory.

As noted by Coghlan, the words have enticed teachers and students to dispute the strengths and weaknesses of scientific theory for the past 20 years.

Experts say Texas's actions could affect schools nationwide, because Texas is one of the country's largest purchasers of textbooks – and publishers are averse to producing different versions of the same material, according to reports by e School News.

Michael Zimmerman of Butler University in Indianapolis, Indiana and a campaigner against creationism, told ABC News that "removing the concept of 'strengths and weaknesses', when the supposed weaknesses are completely bogus, is a real victory."

· Nathan on January 28 2009 11:54:32

Eye-burrowing worms, national treasures... and creationism


Alison George, opinion editor

UK national treasure David Attenborough revealed this week that he gets hate mail from creationists for not crediting God for the wonders of nature in his documentaries.

"They always mean beautiful things like hummingbirds," he told Radio Times magazine. "I always reply by saying that I think of a little child in east Africa with a worm burrowing through his eyeball. The worm cannot live in any other way, except by burrowing through eyeballs."

Eye-burrowing worms? I've heard of some gruesome parasites - the Candiru fish from the Amazon that lodges itself in bodily orifices with its expandable spines, for example - but eye-burrowing worms surely take the biscuit. I had to find out more. Details, with disturbing pic, after the jump.

It seems that Attenborough was referring to the loa loa or African eyeworm, a nematode transmitted to humans through fly bites. These worms burrow through the skin and connective tissue, but it's when they make their way through your eyeball that you're most likely to notice them. This is what they look like:

Loa loa are endemic to the swamps and rain forests of central and west Africa, and, contrary to my horror-movie vision of bursting eyeballs, are rarely life-threatening and no more harmful than the myriad other human parasites in the region.

But eye-burrowing parasites aren't as rare as I'd thought (or hoped). Roundworms found in cat and dog poo can also infect the eye (as well as the brain) and a rather large botfly maggot was found in the eye of a 5-year old Honduran boy (don't click the link unless you're happy seeing some even more disturbing pictures).

I guess that eye-burrowing parasites are just one more test for that age-old religious dilemma about how God can let bad things happen.

Creationism to be taught in La. public schools


By Abby Lunetta

"Evolution is not a science. It's as much a science as Christianity is. The majority of America is Christian, and we should acknowledge that in school," said Sam Huff, LSU geography freshman.

Apparently, lawmakers in Louisiana agree with Huff.

According to local reports, the state's top school board approved a policy on Jan. 15 to aid in teacher compliance with a new state law concerning the teaching of evolution in Louisiana's public schools. The Louisiana Science Education Act, which was overwhelmingly passed by the state legislature last June without serious debate, claims to promote "students' critical thinking skills and open discussion of scientific theories."

The Act expressly allows teachers to provide supplemental reading material for their students, outside of state-approved textbooks, for the purpose of critiquing established scientific theories.

The Student/School Performance and Support Committee – which is part of the Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, also known as BESE – voted to remove the following section of the new policy: "Materials that teach creationism or intelligent design or that advance the religious belief that a supernatural being created humankind shall be prohibited for use in science class."

With the removal of this particular section of the policy, in conjunction with the new law, science teachers in Louisiana public schools will now be given free reign to not only present religious views on human origins but to openly criticize well-established scientific theories, such as Charles Darwin's theory on evolution.

In the event that a parent becomes concerned with the supplemental, unapproved materials or lectures offered in public school classrooms, his or her concerns will be addressed on an individual, case-by-case basis. If there is no parental concern, however, teachers will then be allowed to carry out their curricula unperturbed.

Intelligent design, a modern reformulation of creationism, is the belief that science has failed to fully explain the complexities of human life and its origins, citing this failure as evidence of a divine creator. Creationism takes its position from the Book of Genesis, which states that earth and all of life was created by God.

The theory of evolution states that life began billions of years ago and that natural selection acted upon our genes over a vast period of time, creating countless different plant and animal species. With the discovery of carbon dating, DNA, and the ever-growing fossil record, evolution has firmly taken root and flourished within the scientific community.

Dr. Bryan Carstens, assistant professor of biology at LSU, attempted to protest against the new law.

"From what I observed," he said, "they [the legislature] weren't very interested in hearing dissenting views. For example, I went to testify with one of my colleagues, and I was cut off halfway through my testimony, and my colleague wasn't even allowed to speak – even though everyone who testified in favor of the law was given all the time they wanted."

Despite the fact that intelligent design contains no scientific merit and cannot even be described as a hypothesis (because it is not testable), it aligns itself with popular public opinion. Although America aims to be an open, pluralistic society, the majority of Americans are, in fact, Christian, and the power of majority sometimes trumps basic Constitutional limitations, such as separation of church and state.

Though evolution remains a social and political controversy, it is not a scientific one.

"This is clearly an attempt to manufacture a controversy where none exists among professional scientists," commented Carstens. "My interpretation is that people who are promoting this idea of academic freedom are interested in creating the appearance of controversy in the field of evolutionary biology when biologists – and by professional biologists, I mean people who actively do biological research and publish in peer-reviewed biology journals – have accepted the fact of evolution for over 100 years."

Ultimately frustrating for scientists is the insistence that science is an enemy of religion. While religion has feared, silenced and punished scientific pursuits for thousands of years, scientists – many of whom have been devout adherents to religious beliefs – have persevered in attempting to unlock the mysteries of the universe. Unfortunately, some of the answers provided by science have challenged religion's claim on knowledge.

"Religious opinions are, by definition, outside of science," Carstens said, "but there are plenty of examples of … biologists who are very religious – even some who are evangelical. There are hundreds if not thousands of religious views in the world, yet you can talk to evolutionary biologists in China or India or the Middle East or other parts of the world, and we all have the same basic acceptance of the same core set of facts."

Like Carstens, many university students – especially biology majors – are confused and angered by the passage of the Louisiana Science Education Act. According to Bryan Perkins, a biological sciences senior, creationism and intelligent design are not science and should never be taught in public school classrooms that are funded by taxpayers.

"In my mind, there is no need to propagate the idea of creationism," stated Perkins. "If it must be taught, it should be kept in a history of religion class or philosophy class in which every creation theory – not just the Christian view of creation – is taught."

For Perkins, like Carstens, creationism and intelligent design lack concrete evidence documented in peer-reviewed journals.

"The logic and methodologies applied in science can be used in all situations, including shaping one's religious beliefs," commented Perkins. "Problems only arise in the relationship between science and religion when religion tries to mold scientific evidence to fit its preformed beliefs."

"If the scientific evidence supports religion, then it can be used to reinforce it," he added. "Religion, however, cannot be used to reinforce science. It is up to the scientists to remain objective and not let their beliefs skew the actual evidence."

Not all university students or biology majors side with the theory of evolution, however.

As the new law in Louisiana indicates, evolution remains suspect for many religious Americans, who believe that science fails to completely explain everything. For some of these devout citizens, the idea of evolving from knuckle-walking apes flies in the face of the belief that God created man in the shape of a perfectly formed, fig leaf-clad Adam and Eve.

Michael Womack, a biological sciences junior, believes that creationism should have a place in science classrooms and that science and religion can reinforce each other to help religion "gain a foundation" for its beliefs.

"There are always two sides to a coin, and I hate the idea of just children being fed one side of the story without hearing both sides," commented Womack. "Science is not perfect by any means; there's definitely uncertainty in it. My biggest problem is just how [science teachers] teach certain principles as if they are fact – when, in essence, a lot is still theory."

Womack believes in the theory of evolution to an extent but is very careful in settling on a definition for evolution, agreeing that there is "an element of natural selection that goes on in nature" but rejecting the notion that humans evolved from such simplistic entities like "scum or slime."

"My biggest thing is that if you are going to teach the theory of evolution, you should also teach the theory of God and how he could possibly have a role in all that," said Womack. "You want kids to grow up to be able to make their own choices. Feeding them only one side of the story is kind of like stunting their ability to be able to think about issues and make their own educated choices."

Although it is easy for some to reject evolution in favor of creationism because of religious beliefs, others are able to find a balance between science and religion.

Reese Proctor, an LSU sophomore in pre-nursing, believes in evolution and agrees that creationism is not fit for the science classroom – even though he considers himself to be a religious person.

"Creationism is a religious thing," said Proctor. "As far as teaching it as an actual science in a science class, there is no real scientific data to support creationism. I don't really think it should be taught with biology or the theory of evolution. If private schools want to teach it, that's fine, but with separation of church and state, I really don't think you should teach it in science classes."

Although Proctor does not believe in creationism, he does believe that "God had a hand in evolution."

"I think that evolution can stand alone, but if you are a religious person then you would have to believe that God played a part in it."

Thus, as these ideas of science and religion continue to clash in the minds of so many, the issue of teaching creationism or intelligent design in public school classrooms will likely linger for years to come.

Originally Published: Issue 752 - January 28, 2009 Share on Facebook

Pro-evolution Forces Take an Unexpected Win at the Texas Board of Education


Give this round to science in the fight over how to teach evolution in Texas schools By Kimberly Thorpe
Published on January 28, 2009 at 2:08pm

Subject(s): Evolution, State Board of Education, science, public schools

"When you analyze and evaluate something, by definition you are also looking at any strengths and any weaknesses."

The recent debate about how evolution should be taught in public schools revealed two things about the Texas State Board of Education. First, it showed that the board will listen to its loudest constituents (in this case, the evolutionists). Second, the 15-member board is not, after all, necessarily dominated by right-wing religious fundamentalists.

Every 10 years the board rewrites the science standards for the state's public schools. For the last two decades, the standards have required science teachers to instruct students about the "strengths and weaknesses" of scientific theories. Although the rule did not explicitly mention evolution, critics argued that in practice it targeted Darwin's theory.

Many members of the board are religious fundamentalists and believe that the theory of evolution has significant weaknesses. Although nobody on the board ever suggested that intelligent design—the notion that events in the world are planned and full of purpose, rather than random as evolution suggests—should be taught in schools, the implication was there. The board's chairman, Don McLeroy, has publicly supported teaching students the weaknesses of the theory of evolution, and the state board invited at least one witness to weigh in on the new curriculum standards from the Discovery Institute in Seattle, Washington. According to its Web site, the institute supports "the scientific theory known as intelligent design."

To an anxious public, the board appeared to be growing more conservative in recent years, especially with Governor Rick Perry's 2007 appointment of McLeroy as chairman. In an interview last year with the Dallas Observer, McLeroy said: "Evolution should be taught...but I want to teach more of it. Hey, they've been teaching it for 50 to 60 years and still most of the people don't accept it, because it's so far-fetched. It's far-fetched!" Similarly, the Discovery Institute "encourages schools to improve science education by teaching students more fully about the theory of evolution, including the theory's scientific weaknesses as well as its strengths," according to the Web site.

Fearing a conservative majority, scientists and concerned parents "bombarded" the board before last week's initial vote on science standards, says board member Rick Agosto, a San Antonio Democrat. "[The criticisms] went from [accusing the board of] watering down science, to the extreme that I am trying to personally introduce religion into high schools," Agosto says. "I had parents calling me... 'how dare you'...'separation of church and state.'"

Agosto says the fear was manufactured. "The problem that I had was that there was this big fear created. The boogeyman was created. This fear that if we change one thing...that it's a backdoor entrance to intelligent design, and that's not true."

Dr. Ronald Wetherington of Southern Methodist University is one of the six science experts the board invited to give testimony regarding the proposed curriculum standards. He could find no other point in including "strengths and weaknesses" than as a political wedge. In terms of scientific language, the phrase was redundant. "When you analyze and evaluate something, by definition you are also looking at any strengths and any weaknesses," he says. The phrase, he feared, "allows the school board majority, and at that time it was a majority, to insist that textbook publishers include both weaknesses as well as strengths when they're talking about evolution." And since publishers don't enjoy publishing multiple versions of textbooks, what passes in Texas will be passed to the rest of the nation.

And that was "the fear" that Agosto was describing. Agosto, who usually votes with the conservative faction, didn't do so this time. On Thursday, he—along with the more moderate board members, including the three Dallas-area representatives, Pat Hardy of Fort Worth and Geraldine Miller and Mavis Knight, both from Dallas—voted to strike the word "weaknesses" from the rule. For the first time in a long while, the board had a new majority.

The word strike-out was hailed as a victory for the scientists, but it wasn't the end of the story. The board passed two smaller-scale amendments that ran against the scientists' thinking.

McLeroy introduced an amendment that directs science teachers and students to "describe the sufficiency or insufficiency of common ancestry to explain the sudden appearance, stasis and sequential nature of groups in the fossil record," which passed. And board member Barbara Cargill, from The Woodlands, introduced a series of amendments that added dispute to fossil records. "There are many, many gaps that don't link species changing and evolving into another species, so we want our students to get all of the science, and we want them to have great, open discussions and learning to respect each other's opinions," she told the Houston Chronicle on Friday.

The final vote on the new science standards will be in March. Board members expect to continue hearing passionately from constituents, including parents and business leaders, as well as scientists.

"What I'm going to do for the ones that passed, that will be introduced for a second and final reading, I'm going to take a look at what the community thinks, at the scientists, and I'm going to go through and justify if I feel they should be included," Agosto says. "What I'm not going to do is take into account which member introduced it, whether they are of the religious right."

Although, if recent history is any indication, the public certainly will.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Analysis: Science-Religion Debate Will Continue


publication date: Jan 24, 2009

By KEVIN McGILL / Associated Press Writer

There are disagreements on what exactly will result from policy language the Louisiana state education board recently adopted for teaching science in Louisiana public schools, but one thing looks pretty clear: sooner or later Louisiana is going back to court in a case that will look like a descendant of the 1987 argument over "scientific creationism."

Barbara Forrest, staunch opponent of anything that might bring the religious-based concept into science classes, thinks such a fight is just what some supporters of the new state policy have in mind. She points fingers at the Seattle-based Discovery Institute, a think tank that backs, among other things, the idea of intelligent design – the concept that there is scientific evidence that living organisms were designed.

An institute spokesman denies any desire for a court fight over the issue and points to its public position in support of intelligent design but against requiring its teaching in public schools.

"We're certainly not looking for a test case and we're not trying to legislate the instruction of intelligent design," said John West of the Discovery Institute.

So, what has Forrest worried?

Earlier this month the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education voted to establish policy language in light of last year's legislation that allows local school systems to supplement state-approved science texts with supplemental materials to encourage "critical thinking" on science topics.

Opponents questioned the need for such a law and said it's likely a means of trying to infuse science classes with concepts based on faith rather than science. Proponents said it would merely allow science-based questions about topics such as evolution.

Charged with implementing the law, BESE staff came up with draft policy language that included this sentence: "Materials that teach creationism or intelligent design or that advance the religious belief that a supernatural being created humankind shall be prohibited for use in science classes."

Louisiana's law giving creationism equal time with evolution in science class was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1987. In 2005, a federal judge barred the school system in Dover, Pa., from teaching intelligent design alongside evolution in high school biology classes. The judge said intelligent design is religion masquerading as science.

Given those decisions, the draft BESE language would seem to be sound policy that would keep teachers out of legally questionable territory.

But Louisiana Family Forum and other backers of the law by Sen. Ben Nevers, D-Bogalusa, persuaded BESE to cut the language. It went beyond the scope of the law, they said. It was "hostile" to religion, complained LFF director Gene Mills.

Forrest, a Southeastern Louisiana University professor who works with the National Center for Science Education and who is a founder of the Louisiana Coalition for Science, suspects a different motive: that "intelligent design" backers hope to eventually introduce their concept into Louisiana science classes and that a Louisiana federal court might see things differently than the federal judge in Pennsylvania.

"They're shopping around for another court case," said Forrest, an expert witness for intelligent design opponents in the Dover case.

True, the policy adopted by BESE, as well as the law passed last year, expressly forbid use of materials that "promote religious doctrine." But backers of intelligent design say it's science, not religion.

BESE has the right to block materials it deems inappropriate and it may be called upon to do so by a parent who believes his or her child is being taught religion instead of science.

But, if BESE doesn't want to specifically block intelligent design now, will it do so if a teacher introduces an intelligent design text into a classroom?

If it doesn't, Forrest and others will surely go to court.

If it does, some backers of intelligent design – whether supported by the Discovery Institute or not – would likely do the same, perhaps under the banner of the new legislation.

Controversial British naturalist Charles Darwin born 200 years ago


ENGLAND 12 February 2009

Fifty years after British naturalist Charles Darwin was born, he shocked the world with a theory of evolution by natural selection that belies the Biblical story of the Creation of Man. It still shocks much of the world. The 200th anniversary of his birth and the 150th anniversary of "Origin of the Species" will see pilgrimages to Darwin shrines, new movies about the naturalist, and rhetoric that celebrates his life and work -- or condems both. In celebration, the village of Downe will become a World Heritage Site and HMS Beagle is being rebuilt.

Darwin formulated his theory after returning from a voyage around the world aboard HMS Beagle.

The rhetoric is most heated in the United States, where the fight is mainly over how humankind's arrival is explained in schools. The dispute keeps the courts busy. Christian fundamentalists have taken up the Creationist position. They find Darwin's protracted timeline for the arrival of Man as upsetting as his theory that animals and humans share a common ancestry. Evolutionists regard creationism, also called intelligent design and often the religious card in political campaigns, as thinly-disguised religious dogma.

The year 2009 is also the anniversary of his wedding to his first cousin, Emma Wedgewood, with whom he had 10 children. Darwin died on 18 Apr 1882.

A descendant of Lieutenant John Lort Stokes, who accompanied Darwin on his voyage around the world aboard HMS Beagle, is planning to recreate a full-size version of the ship, and launch it for the anniversary. It will be used for scientific expeditions around the world.

The Darwin shrines include his birthplace in Shrewsbury, Shropshire; his home in Downe, Kent; and his tomb in Westminster Abbey in London.The movies planned for the anniversary include one based on the book, "Annie's Box," and "Evolution's Captain: The Dark Fate of the Man Who Sailed Charles Darwin Around the World." Sep/08


Information about Darwin events (aboutdarwin.com)

For more information on the World Heritage Site:

Charles Darwin (Encyclopedia Britannica)

McCain's VP wants creationism taught in schools (Wired News 29 Aug 2008)

Texas Two-Step


Published: January 25, 2009

One would think that by now the teaching-evolution-in-schools debate was settled. But not in Texas, where the State Board of Education fumbled a decision on curriculum standards last week. The struggle will be resumed in March, when the board is scheduled to take its final votes on new science standards that will govern what is taught in the classroom and in textbooks.

Seven of the board's 15 members are deemed social conservatives. What the board decides could have an impact on many other states, because Texas is a huge market for textbooks and publishers are often reluctant to produce multiple versions of the same textbook.

The voting, a preliminary test of how the culture-war winds are blowing, concerned whether to approve or amend proposed new standards that had been carefully crafted by teams of educators and other experts. The new standards dropped a phrase that had been in previous ones requiring students to study the "strengths and weaknesses" of all scientific theories. Although that language may seem innocuous, it has been construed in recent years as code words for introducing critiques of evolution theory put forth by advocates of creationism and its close cousin, intelligent design.

We were heartened when the board beat back, by a very narrow margin, efforts to reintroduce the language on "weaknesses." But the conservative bloc immediately recouped by pushing through amendments that require students to assess the arguments "for and against" common ancestry, a core element of evolution theory, and its "sufficiency or insufficiency" to explain the fossil record. How that differs from the old language of "strengths and weaknesses" is not readily apparent.

The lesson we draw from these shenanigans is that scientifically illiterate boards of education should leave the curriculum to educators and scientists who know what constitutes a sound education.


Times Topics: Creationism and Intelligent Design

Creationists tell Sir David Attenborough to burn in hell


Sir David Attenborough receives hate mail from viewers for not crediting God in his nature programmes.

"They tell me to burn in hell and good riddance," Sir David said during an interview with the Radio Times about his latest documentary on Charles Darwin and natural selection.

This year marks two centuries since Darwin's birth and 150 years since the groundbreaking On the Origin of Species was published.

Telling the magazine that he was also asked why he did not give "credit" to the Lord, Sir David continued: "They always mean beautiful things like hummingbirds.

"I always reply by saying that I think of a little child in East Africa with a worm burrowing through his eyeball.

"The worm cannot live in any other way, except by burrowing through eyeballs.

"I find that hard to reconcile with the notion of a divine and benevolent creator."

Sir David, who attended the Wyggeston Grammar School for Boys in Leicester from the 1930s, told the magazine he was astonished at manifestations of Christian faith.

He said: "It never really occurred to me to believe in God - and I had nothing to rebel against, my parents told me nothing whatsoever.

"But I do remember looking at my headmaster delivering a sermon, a classicist, extremely clever... and thinking, he can't really believe all that, can he? How incredible!"

Sir David also said it was "terrible, terrible" when creationism and evolution were taught in schools as equivalent, alternative perspectives.

"It's like saying that two and two equals four, but if you wish to believe it, it could also be five... Evolution is not a theory; it is a fact, every bit as much as the historical fact that William the Conqueror landed in 1066."

Speaking about the relationship between people and the rest of nature, Sir David said: "People say to me: 'What is a mosquito for? They're no good for anything!' "The basic notion that the world is our oyster, that we have domination over all things, that they are here for us..."

Asked where that view comes from, Sir David replied: "The Bible, of course. Genesis, chapter one."

Speaking about views 2,000 years ago, he said: "The idea that the Lord had given us a present, that the world is a gift from God... well, the amount of stuff, back then, that the Lord was giving away was limited. We do not have dominion."

© All rights reserved.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

On the evolution of Darwin


Among a glut of new works on the great naturalist, Philip Ball finds the claim that a hatred of slavery motivated his studies

Philip Ball The Observer, Sunday 25 January 2009 Article history

It sounds glib to say that every age moulds Charles Darwin to its own preoccupations, but the temptation is hard to resist. To the Victorians, he was an atheistic agitator undermining humankind's privileged moral status. In the early 20th century, he became a prophet of social engineering and the free market. With sociobiology in the 1970s, Darwinism became a behavioural theory, while neo-Darwinist genetics prompted a bleak view of humanity as gene machines driven by the selfish imperatives of our DNA.

Darwin's Sacred Cause : Race, Slavery and the Quest for Human Origins by Adrian Desmond and James Moore Allen Lane, £25 Buy Darwin's Sacred Cause at the Guardian bookshop Now, 200 years after Darwin's birth and 150 years after the publication of On the Origin of Species, Adrian Desmond and James Moore, whose doorstop 1991 biography seemed to leave nothing more to be said, offer a new vision of the architect of evolution by natural selection. In Darwin's Sacred Cause (Allen Lane £25), they say that Darwin's work on the common ancestry of all living things was motivated not by abstract curiosity, but by a determination to show that African slaves have the same roots as their white masters. They claim that the foundational text of modern biology was spurred by Darwin's repugnance of the slave trade.

In this view, Darwin's championing of the "brotherhood" of all men might even be considered one of the enabling factors in the election of a black man as US president. There will no doubt be sneers at this "politically correct" Darwin, but it is hard to dispute Desmond and Moore's contention that Darwin aimed to overturn the notion, conveniently adopted by slavers, that blacks and Europeans (and other races) were separate species.

Besides, there was little that was PC about Darwin: he concurred with the prevailing belief in the superiority of whites, and of men over women. None the less, the Darwin who emerges from this meticulous analysis is profoundly humanitarian, despising slavery because he abhorred cruelty to any creature.

Others may be dismayed by the new portrait because it threatens to undermine the supposed "purity" of his quest. If Darwin had sociopolitical reasons to insist on the unity of races, was he a reliable judge of the evidence? Certainly, the many-species view of humankind was not then as nonsensical as it now appears. Data on the long-term fertility of progeny from cross-race unions was scant and often distorted. The fossil record was still silent on human origins, and genomics was more than a century away. Many of Darwin's scientific contemporaries held reservations about the one-species picture, including Darwin's friend Charles Lyell, the geologist who helped give geological time the reach that Darwinian evolution required. But if Darwin had an agenda for his theory, this makes it all the more admirable that he didn't leap to conclusions; he agonised over the data when others would have been content to paper over the cracks.

Desmond and Moore's account does, all the same, highlight the extraordinary degree to which Darwin's science has become encumbered by a cult of personality. It's as though evolution by natural selection still seems so challenging that we are forced back on to the man himself. In Darwin's Island (Little, Brown £20), a survey of his lesser-known works on such topics as insect-eating plants and earthworms, Steve Jones explains how mistaken the conventional narrative of Darwin's life is.

His journey on the Beagle, lavishly documented in James Taylor's The Voyage of the Beagle (Conway £20), contributed only modestly to his evolutionary theory - the Galápagos finches created "inexplicable confusion" rather than enlightenment - and his scientific journey was just beginning, not concluding, as the ship returned to Falmouth.

His theory of evolution didn't transform natural history at a stroke. As Bill Price says in his primer, Charles Darwin: Origins and Arguments (Pocket Essentials £9.99), its first brief airing at the Linnaean Society in 1858, alongside the parallel hypothesis of Alfred Russel Wallace, excited barely a ripple. Neither did it immediately mobilise the church in opposition. After all, evolution - the mutability of organisms - was an old idea.

As Jones neatly puts it, Darwinian evolution is a kind of engineering: "Natural selection is a factory that makes almost impossible things." It shows how to design without a designer and requires two elements: random variation and a means of selecting the "best" outcomes. The latter - selective pressure, as biologists call it - comes from the competition for limited resources, an idea inspired by the Malthusian view of population growth. Darwin came to believe that a key aspect of this filtering lay not in who could run fastest, but who got the most sex. He had no qualms about extending this sexual selection hypothesis beyond the peacocks' clumsy yet dazzling tails to the question of adornment and beauty in human populations, giving him a nascent theory of aesthetics.

Wallace, who Darwin came to see more as hindrance than ally, never accepted this idea; he considered animal displays to be primarily forms of camouflage or warning. Indeed, while a new collection of Wallace's works, Natural Selection and Beyond (OUP £30), makes a brave attempt to redeem his also-ran reputation, he emerges as something of a well-meaning gadfly, prone to the mysticism and spiritualism of his age.

Darwin himself could not explain the other ingredient of his theory: how attributes vary in a population. But genomics now does so in terms of the random mutations that occur in copying and combining DNA between generations. The resulting blend of Darwinism and genetics, called the modern synthesis, offers so apparently beautiful a means of generating biological complexity from simple origins that until very recently it blinded biologists to just how complicated, subtle and messy the transmission of our genes is.

Where much of the problems lay, and still lie, however, was in the concept of the "best" outcome. Even Darwin struggled with that. To biologist Ernst Haeckel, his champion in Germany, it implied an almost mystical path towards some pre-existing ideal form, invoking notions of racial perfection that were later blended into Nazism. Herbert Spencer, who coined the misleading term "survival of the fittest", saw implications for society, and soon enough class-based hierarchies and oligarchies were considered the "natural" state of affairs.

Darwin's cousin Francis Galton took that further, arguing that efforts to care for "the imbecile, the maimed and the sick" hindered the weeding process that maintains society's vitality. Galton's eugenics were promoted by Darwinists such as Julian Huxley, grandson of Darwin's bullish supporter Thomas Henry Huxley. Churchill was another enthusiast, drafting what became the 1913 Mental Deficiency Act which aimed to prevent "mental defectives" from having children.

It is often said that Darwin cannot be held accountable for these excesses, but their seeds are obvious in his works, most notably The Descent of Man (1871), in which he finally explained what his evolutionary theory meant for humankind. The book echoes the concerns of Galton and others about overbreeding in "the reckless, degraded and often vicious members of society", such as the "squalid, unaspiring Irishman" who "multiplies like rabbits". There is a clear natural order of class, rank and race and only Darwin's insistence on a moral duty to help the weak partly redeems him.

All this, and not least Darwin's provocative talk of "favoured races in the struggle for life", seems now to be a residue not only of the chauvinism of the times but of a reluctance to abandon belief in abstract "fitness peaks" that natural selection seeks to scale. In fact, evolution can have no targets; races and species cannot be "perfected". That was one of the main objections to Darwinism, for it seemed to knock Homo sapiens off our pinnacle. We have yet to come to terms with our (highly successful) occupation of a evolutionary niche, rather than embodying a supreme destination. Darwin was equally troubled at how descent from non-humans left God no opportunity to invest us with morality. Evolutionary psychology and game theory now offer accounts, persuasive to varying degrees, of how morality itself is a product of natural selection.

If a principled stance on slavery did motivate Darwin's theory, it would be a curiously inapt stimulus, however noble. The separate-species line peddled by slave-trade apologists needed debunking, but it seems highly unlikely that a failure to do so would have altered Darwin's humane convictions on the matter. Likewise, no one would relinquish slavery for that reason - it took a civil war, not a book. That the pro- and anti- camps divided very much along traditional lines - Whig versus Tory, progressive versus reactionary - indicates that science was never really the issue.

All of which is a timely reminder, in these times of creationism, fundamentalism and climate-change denial, of a truth that scientists continually have to struggle with: in human affairs, battles are rarely won by evidence and logic.

Charles Darwin A life

12 February 1809 in Shrewsbury. Died 19 April 1882 in Downe, Kent.

Personal life Married his cousin Emma Wedgewood. They had 10 children.

Studied medicine at Edinburgh before dropping out and transferring to Christ's College, Cambridge with the intention of becoming a priest.

1831 Invited by John Stevens Henslow to join HMS Beagle on a survey of South America commissioned by the Crown.

1838-1843 Edited and contributed to The Zoology of the Voyage of HMS Beagle. Consolidated his theory of natural selection, helped by reading TR Malthus's An Essay on the Principle of Population (1798).

1859 On the Origin of Species

1871 The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex

1872 The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals.

He said
"We must acknowledge, as it seems to me, that a man with all his noble qualities ... still bears in his bodily frame the indelible stamp of his lowly origins."

They said
"Evolution offers a far richer and more spectacular vision than any religion." - Richard Dawkins

Texas board moves closer to new science standards


AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — The State Board of Education moved a step closer to dropping a 20-year-old science curriculum requirement that critics say is used to undermine the theory of evolution.

After two days of heated debate, the board made a key vote Friday in favor of dropping a mandate that teachers address both "strengths and weaknesses" of scientific theory.

A panel of science teachers had recommended that the language be dropped, suggesting instead that students be required to analyze and evaluate scientific explanations.

The new standards the board ultimately approves — a final vote on the curriculum proposal is not expected until March — will be in place for the next decade. They also will dictate how publishers handle the topic of evolution in textbooks.

Critics of the "weaknesses" language argue that watering down the teaching standards of origin of man is an attempt to promote creationism in public schools.

Federal courts have ruled against forcing the teaching of creationism and intelligent design.

Critics of the proposal to drop the mandate blame "left-wing ideology" for trying to stifle free speech.

A narrower requirement, adopted in an unexpected amendment Thursday, would require high school biology students to address the "sufficiency or insufficiency" of common ancestry to explain certain aspects of evolutionary theory.

Copyright © 2009 The Associated Press

Teach both theories, flaws and all


5:12 PM Sat, Jan 24, 2009 | Permalink

Re: "Should evolution flaws be taught? Board hears debate from theory's critics, supporters ahead of curriculum vote," Thursday news story.

Frankly, I tire of this mind-numbing debate over teaching evolution as absolute or with all its many weaknesses, which I'd be happy to discuss with Eugenie Scott. Should we teach creationism, too, with its weaknesses? I would suggest, for the sake of education, we teach both, weaknesses and all.

Shouldn't we allow higher learning to take place by discussing both theories and allow students to analyze, evaluate and synthesize the information and draw a conclusion? Isn't it time for those charged with the education of our youth to put their personal biases aside when making decisions about education?

Bob Kirby, Plano

It's not a Catholic theory of creation


January 25, 2009

The newest strategy of the Discovery Institute to promote its agenda of creationism and intelligent design is to work for and promote "Academic Freedom" legislation for science education in K-12 schools.

If you go to the Discovery Institute Web site you will find them reporting on and praising state-level efforts to change laws. Not only are they committed to promoting their religion of Christianity, they are promoting only their Protestant version.

As a Catholic, I would be worried about my children or my students having to be exposed to their vision of a Creationist God in the public school system rather than the Catholic vision of the Creationist God who has been creating in and through evolution. I would not want my children or students to think that God only created once back about 10,000 years ago and created the species as they are now or just slightly evolved to this point. If creationism and intelligent design are going to be taught in science classrooms, I would want the Catholic version taught.

I don't want my children or my students being exposed to the Protestant idea that the Bible has to be interpreted literally. I want my children and my students exposed to Catholic interpretation of the Bible, namely that the Bible needs to be interpreted in its own historical context and hence the words used then don't mean the same things they mean now in the 20th century.

I would want my children and students to have a historical consciousness and know our understanding of how God created and is still creating can be known through modern science as modern scientists understand it. I don't want my children or students exposed to the Protestant belief that science and religion are in conflict.

Further, I don't want my children and students being taught to believe that science and metaphysics are the same thing. I want my children and students to be able to think critically about the distinction between metaphysics and science.

Medieval fathers of the Church like St. Thomas Aquinas taught the difference between metaphysics and science, and I would want my children and students exposed to that distinction and not have them exposed to ideas that gloss over this essential distinction.

Frankly, I don't want my children or students exposed to the Protestant version of creationism. Intelligent design is nothing by the Protestant version of creationism. All the talk of irreducible complexity is just their way of arguing that species had to be created by God as they are because they could not have evolved from other species the way evolution tells us they did. And that metaphysical argument is precisely against my beliefs as a Catholic about how God created the species.

If the BESE board is going to let metaphysics be taught in a science curriculum, I want them to include the Catholic version of creationism, too. Thirty percent of Louisianians are Catholic. So at least 30 percent of the metaphysics education in science classrooms should be Catholic.

If my children and students have to be exposed to Protestant metaphysics, then they should also equally hear, and this is on account of academic freedom, Catholic metaphysics.

The Rev. George Coyne, the directory of the Vatican Observatory, in a 2006 talk said, "Intelligent design reduces and belittles God's power and might." He went on to say that science should be seen as a "completely neutral" endeavor and that science and religion should be totally separate pursuits.

John Paul II in his "Message to the Vatican Observatory Conference on Evolutionary and Molecular Biology" declared that today evolutionary theory is no longer a hypothesis. He also went on to say that evolutionary theory is increasingly accepted by scientists and supported by a convergence of research from many different fields.

The pope referred to "the need for a correct interpretation of the inspired word, of a rigorous hermeneutics. It is fitting to set forth well the limits of the meaning proper to Scripture, rejecting undue interpretations which make it say what it does not have the intention of saying."

He also acknowledges that natural philosophy plays a legitimate role in the explanation and mechanism of evolution, but it does not necessitate a reductionist metaphysics. Intelligent design proponents, like Philip Johnson, believe that evolutionary theory is necessarily materialist and reductionist, but the pope understands that science and religion are separate entities with separate magisteria and thus it is not necessary to hold that the spirit of a human being arose out of matter. Human nature is still in the image of God even if human beings evolved from other animal species.

It is clear that the Catholic Church's position is inconsistent with intelligent design. Catholics are not opposed to academic freedom, but we would like to have our perspectives included in that if there is going to be a violation of the separation of church and state in the science classrooms of Louisiana.

Of course, better yet, would be that there be no violation of the separation of church and state in the science classrooms of Louisiana and that our children and students be exposed only to the neutral theories of science. Let our children also learn that science is a methodology, not a dogma. And I will be happy.

Holly L. Wilson is professor of philosophy at the University of Louisiana at Monroe.

In your voice


brucechapman wrote:

Holly Wilson ("It's Not a Catholic Theory") misrepresents Discovery Institute, intelligent design AND the Catholic Church in her ill-informed and ill-tempered column. As President of Discovery Institute I resent any attempt to place a sectarian tag on our think tank, whether "Protestant" or anything else. I myself am a Catholic, as are a number of our fellows--scientists and others. One is both a Phd. physicist and a Catholic priest! Yes, a number of our fellows are Protestants, of course--and so what?. A couple are Jewish.

The Wilson attack is a monumental misrepresentation of Vatican policy and intelligent design alike. It does not promote accurate dialog and understanding on any level. I would encourage the News-Star to invite a pro-intelligent design scientist to provide a fair and positive representation of what the Darwinism versus design debate is about.

1/25/2009 9:06:09 AM

Jerry Coyne's 'Why Evolution is True' presents scientific facts


Modern science offers facts that would be a gift for Darwin

Sunday, January 25, 2009
John Mangels

December 2005 should have marked the end of longstanding attempts to sneak biblical creation tales into public school science classes.

That's when federal judge John E. Jones III ruled that creationism's latest incarnation, intelligent design - the belief that a supernatural overseer, rather than evolutionary processes, brought about complex life - is "a religious alternative masquerading as a scientific theory."

Jones, a conservative, church-going judicial appointee of former President George W. Bush, drove a stake into the heart of the creationist movement. The judge dismissed as "breathtaking inanity" the Dover, Penn., school board's policy of misrepresenting evolution and promoting intelligent design as a viable alternative.

But creationism evolves. As Scientific American magazine reports this month, the movement's backers have shifted to a more subtle strategy by insisting schools subject evolution to "critical analysis."

In Louisiana, a law signed in June by Gov. Bobby Jindal, a rising Republican star, allows teachers under the guise of academic freedom to use materials other than standard textbooks to help students "critique" certain scientific theories such as evolution and global warming. And at the Creation Museum near Cincinnati, which has drawn more than 630,000 visitors since its 2007 opening, a new exhibit will take on the "inaccuracies" of Charles Darwin's work.

All this makes Jerry Coyne's lucid, accessible "Why Evolution Is True" desperately needed. With logic and clarity, the University of Chicago professor presents the vast trove of scientific evidence that supports Darwin's theory.

Other recent pro-Darwin books have focused more on defusing the philosophical angst - no room for God, no purpose or morality to life - that evolution seems to spark. Coyne, an evolutionary geneticist who studies fruit flies, goes straight for the scientific proof. He draws on fresh findings from his own field, and from paleontology, molecular biology, geology and other disciplines to make the case that evolution is "far more than a theory, let alone a theory in crisis," but "a fact."

Where's the evidence? You can find it practically anyplace, from fossil digs and genetics labs to doctor's offices, back yards, even your kitchen, where foods like bananas, broccoli, tomatoes and wheat were domesticated by growers mimicking evolutionary techniques.

"We can directly witness natural selection leading to better adaptation," Coyne writes. "Insects have become resistant to DDT and other pesticides, plants have adapted to herbicides, and fungi, worms and algae have evolved resistance to heavy metals that have polluted their environment."

Everyone knows about drug resistance, but few realize that it is a superb example of natural selection in action. "We see fruit flies adapting to extreme temperature, honeybees adapting to competitors, and guppies becoming less colorful to escape the notice of predators. How many more examples do we need?" Coyne asks.

There are plenty more, and Coyne uses them to torpedo the major claims of intelligent design: That "transitional" fossils don't exist, that there's no evidence of new species evolving, that evolution is insufficient to explain "complex" organs such as the eye. Calmly, he addresses difficult topics like the origin of race, the rise of humans from our primate ancestors and whether our genes predestine behavior.

"Why Evolution Is True" is not likely to sway avowed creationists, but it's invaluable, engrossing reading for anyone who's uncertain of the facts or who has struggled with how to respond to anti-evolution arguments.

February is the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin's birth. Jerry Coyne's book is a perfect birthday gift.

John Mangels is The Plain Dealer science writer.

To reach John Mangels:

The Bible is proof that the tent is big enough to include clashing ideas and beliefs


By FRITZ RITSCH Special to the Star-Telegram

The debate over teaching evolution in schools has a lot to do with science, but not biology.

Look instead to archaeology, anthropology, and mostly to literary and historical criticism — the tools modern scholarship uses to interpret the Bible.

The application of scientific method to holy writ has raised doubts about scriptural infallibility. Those who want to teach students "the weaknesses" of evolution hope, like good lawyers, to raise enough doubts that creationism looks credible. They fear that if creationism isn't credible, then their literal reading of Scripture isn't credible, either — and neither is their faith.

They're right. But what's needed is not faulty science. Believers need a new way to assert the truths of biblical faith without turning off our brains in the process.

If modern science and biblical faith are at odds, then we believers face an insoluble conflict. The insights gained from the theory of evolution have revolutionized medicine and science. But the Bible asserts that all life occurred spontaneously. If the Bible is infallible not only in matters of faith but of fact, then we have to turn a blind eye to, or come up with convoluted explanations for, the incredible gains made by post-Darwinian science.

Worst of all, there is no middle ground.

From a fundamentalist perspective, to accept the theory of evolution means we must reject the Bible as a whole. To acknowledge that the Bible might be inaccurate in any area of authority is to reject it in every area of authority.

If this is true, then biblical faith becomes the bunker mentality of people who must deny reality to believe in the God of Moses and Jesus.

There has to be a middle way!

And there is. Intelligent believers can accept that Scripture is the word of God, "unique and authoritative" (as we Presbyterians confess) in its revelations about God and life, without disavowing modern science — and common sense.

But believers have to acknowledge that Scripture is not infallible in faith and fact, as if handed down by God without human mediation. The Bible never claims that kind of authority in the first place.

The Scriptures were written at a time when the disciplines of science and history were hardly what we'd describe today as "scientific." The writers and editors were in search not of facts but their meaning. They present a lot of history, some of which can be confirmed, and some that can't; but they also use poetry, exaggeration, storytelling, long-discredited cosmology and myth to write about something that science will never prove or disprove: that God is engaged in the world.

Scientific historian Stephen Jay Gould suggested that science and faith are "Non-Overlapping Magisteria." Modern science can do what pre-modern thinking could not: It can completely and effectively explain the physical world in physical terms. But biblical writers were very skeptical of limiting human knowledge to the physical realm, which they referred to as "the flesh" or "the world."

Scripture's area of expertise is revelation — that which can't be explained in physical terms. Revelation delves into matters of "the spirit," the invisible, the reality that humans would never completely understand unless it was revealed.

The creation stories of Genesis are a case in point. The authors weren't interested in describing the literal creation, but in making transcendent points about God, creation and human nature.

You don't need to be a creationist to believe that God created all things; that God made them good; that God made humanity in God's image; and that there is something rebellious and egocentric in human nature.

The details of the stories are carefully crafted; every word is fraught with meaning. Jews and Christians study these words carefully. We want to get them right. We believe that these words are inspired; they are the word of God. But these brilliant details are not facts. The fact that humanity evolved, contrary to the biblical creation story, does not make Genesis less true.

Like the created order, Scripture didn't emerge fully formed. Both scholarship and history show that the Bible evolved. The Torah, the first five books of the Bible, is the work of at least four editors over a period of hundreds of years. Likewise, the New Testament represents more than 100 years of writing that was not finalized until almost 300 years after Jesus' crucifixion.

Our Scriptures evolved through a very human process of reflection and editing, spiced by spirited disagreement. The Bible intentionally comprises differing views and theologies. It was a "big tent" compromise, a "middle ground" encompassing a wide variety of early Christian sects and views, uniting them over a few essential beliefs without expunging the qualities that made each unique. To claim that God was engaged in such an "evolutionary" process is surely a hopeful sign that compromise affirms faith.

Admittedly, Judeo-Christian faith is strongly grounded in history, so factual conflicts can be challenging. That's why God gave us minds, and why believers assert that we are saved by grace.

There's room to be wrong — a fact that often gets lost in debates about doctrine. But the essential truths of our faith — the resurrection of Christ for Christians, for instance, or God's appearance to Moses in the Burning Bush — will never be proved or disproved by scientific method.

We take it on faith that God is active in history. After all, faith is unlike science in that it is "the evidence of things hoped for, the proof of things unseen" (Hebrews 11:1).

If we could prove it, then it wouldn't be faith.

The Rev. Dr. Fritz Ritsch is pastor of St. Stephen Presbyterian Church in Fort Worth.

'Why Evolution Is True' by Jerry A. Coyne: Author confronts creationism and intelligent design


12:00 AM CST on Sunday, January 25, 2009

By FRED BORTZ / Special Contributor to The Dallas Morning News


In his most recent book for young readers, Astrobiology, Fred Bortz speculates that evolution is true on many worlds beyond this one.

In book publishing, timing and controversy are everything. So it is no surprise to see University of Chicago professor and evolutionary geneticist Jerry A. Coyne's new book, Why Evolution Is True, appearing just in time for Charles Darwin's 200th birthday. (He is probably just lucky that the book arrives amid a fresh battle on how the subject should be taught in Texas.)

He could not have chosen a simpler or more provocative title. He confronts creationism and intelligent design head-on. Those lines of thought describe Darwinism as a theory, while he contends evolution is a fact.

The argument begins with different interpretations of the word theory. Coyne puts it this way: "[A] theory is much more than just a speculation about how things are: it is a well-thought-out group of propositions meant to explain the facts about the real world. ... [T]he theory of evolution is more than just the statement that 'evolution happened': it is an extensively documented set of principles."

How extensive is the scientific documentation that underlies those principles? Coyne argues that it is at least as comprehensive as the evidence supporting any other widely accepted scientific theory. Chapter by chapter, he lays out an overwhelming case, drawing evidence from geology, biology, physics and chemistry.

Darwin's original collection of observations, which formed the basis of his famous The Origin of Species, was sufficient to qualify his theory as robust 150 years ago. But so much additional evidence has accumulated since that book appeared (most notably DNA as the molecular basis of genetics and mutation), that Coyne is willing to go farther and declare that evolution is true.

Some readers will dispute that, arguing that science allows for falsification of a theory but not for a declaration of truth. Coyne's counterargument is this: "A theory becomes a fact (or a 'truth') when so much evidence has accumulated in its favor – and there is no decisive evidence against it – that virtually all reasonable people will accept it. That does not mean that a 'true theory' will never be falsified. All scientific truth is provisional, subject to modification in light of new evidence."

At times, Coyne's certitude feels like overselling.

But in the end, most readers will discover a wealth of evidence that they had barely been aware of. And they will appreciate Coyne's oft-repeated question: Why would an intelligent designer use a convoluted, error-prone and constrained process to create, destroy and rebuild ecologies rather than going straight to the goal?

His answer is that evolution has no goal. Still, one remarkable truth about it is that it has produced a species that can ask that question.

In his most recent book for young readers, Astrobiology, Fred Bortz speculates that evolution is true on many worlds beyond this one.

Why Evolution Is True

Jerry A. Coyne
Viking, $27.95
Available Monday