NTS LogoSkeptical News for 28 February 2009

Archive of previous NTS Skeptical News listings

Saturday, February 28, 2009

Repackaged creationism


Public Forum Letter

Posted: 02/24/2009 06:00:00 PM MST

I applaud The Tribune for its recent extensive coverage of evolution on Feb. 14, but some clarifications are warranted.

First, The Tribune perpetuates the erroneous claim that intelligent design is a "new, more rigorous critique of evolution" ("Can they both hold the truth?"). Instead, as the Kitzmiller v. Dover, Penn., trial convincingly demonstrated, intelligent design is just creationism repackaged; it is not science. In a failed attempt to skirt the law, the authors of the intelligent-design textbook Of Pandas and People had simply (and literally) replaced "creation" with "intelligent design."

Second, Sen. Chris Buttars' "divine design" terminology was not mistaken. The motivation behind his "origin of life" bill was unambiguously religious. Sen. Patrice Arent testified that Buttars tried (unsuccessfully) to persuade her to vote for his bill on the basis of religion. Similarly, Rep. LaVar Christensen publicly affirmed that he supported the bill because of his belief "in nature's God."

Third, The Tribune headlined evolution as "a theory still in controversy." Importantly, the controversy is a religious, not scientific, one. Current calls to "teach the controversy" in public science curricula are misleading and misdirected.

Gregory A. Clark
Salt Lake City

Column: Clarification about creationism, evolution


Matthew Hiser & Nathan May, guest columnists

We are writing in response to, "Considering creationism offers interesting insight"(CT, Feb. 19). The major problem with this column was the liberal use of the terms "creationism" and "evolution" without proper definition, and they demand clarification.

For example, in the first paragraph the author defines creationism as "the view that the Bible is literally true and humans and the universe were created by God within the past 10,000 years." This definition would be better applied to the term "young-earth creationism." The author entirely ignores major schools of thought, such as old-earth creationism or theistic evolution. We will now clarify the meanings and relevance of these terms to the life origins debate.

Young-earth creationism concludes that the seven days of Creation were seven literal 24-hour days, and accordingly, the earth is less than 10,000 years old (Morris, The Genesis Flood, The Genesis Story; Ham, The Lie: Evolution).

However, this theory is critically flawed by the fact that, according to Genesis, God did not make the sun until the fourth day of creation. Therefore, how does it make any sense to assume 24-hour days before the sun was even created? Additionally, of course, modern science has clearly proven that a young earth/universe is not true. However, the Bible itself is consistent with an older universe and the young-earth belief arose from misinterpretation. The bigger point here is that the term "creationism" is not restricted to the young-earth creationism interpretation.

Old-earth creationism is a class of hypotheses that essentially argue a creator is responsible for crafting the universe, life and, to some extent or another, mankind. This understanding does not in general deny the idea of genetic transitions from simple to complex life. However, unlike some other theories, it does involve the idea that the Biblical story of creation has scientific as well as spiritual relevance (Ross, A Matter of Days, The Genesis Question; Stoner, A New Look at an Old Earth).

Theistic evolution is another potentially confusing, but critical, term appearing in the human development discussion. Theistic evolution deals specifically with the idea that evolution, essentially as described by a modern theory, occurred, guided, observed, or was permitted by a creative deity (Miller, Finding Darwin's God; Collins, The Language of God).

The lumping together of the term "creationism" with the definition of "young-earth creationism" is an employment of the straw-man argument by the author to reject all forms of creationism by cherry-picking one that has clearly been disproved and pointing out its absurdity to condemn all of them. "The Genesis Flood," Morris' seminal work on young-earth creationism (as per Mr. Thomas), was written in 1960; evolutionary science has since had its own changes and panned theories. Modern creationism has become more scientifically robust because of an increasingly accepted reading of the Genesis story that the universe and earth were formed over long periods of time.

The second very relevant clarification of terms that the author fails to provide is the distinction between microevolution and macroevolution. He seems to operate on the premise that "evolution" is true and "Even the Vatican supports" it. Here, and in many other cases, "evolution" becomes unacceptably vague.

Microevolution refers to the drift of genes and traits within a population, which has been clearly proven and is observed ongoing today; just about every scientist who has seriously studied the matter accepts microevolution as fact (i.e. drug-resistant bacteria).

Macroevolution, on the other hand, is the much more controversial, theologically relevant, and less supported assertion that all life on this planet developed from a common ancestor by the blind process of natural selection. Macroevolution involves drastic genetic change, on the order of changing one species into another (i.e. developing new functions, appendages, body forms, etc.). We believe macroevolution itself is fatally flawed by Darwin's own standards, namely the existence of systems of irreducible complexity and the lack of evidence in the geological record, among other reasons.

Regarding irreducible complexity, Darwin wrote: "If it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed, which could not possibly have been formed by numerous, successive, slight modifications, my theory would absolutely break down." In other words, irreducibly complex systems cannot be produced by natural selection, and their existence in biological systems would disprove his theory. Unfortunately for Darwin, we have since discovered tremendous examples of irreducible complexity in biochemical processes, organs, etc. (Behe, "Darwin's Black Box").

Regarding the geological evidence for macroevolution, Darwin wrote: "But just in proportion as this process of extermination has acted on an enormous scale, so must the number of intermediate varieties, which have formerly existed, be truly enormous. Why then is not every geological formation and every stratum full of such intermediate links? Geology assuredly does not reveal any such finely graduated organic chain; and this, perhaps, is the most obvious and serious objection which can be urged against the theory. The explanation lies, as I believe, in the extreme imperfection of the geological record."

Darwin was saying that in his time, the geological record didn't support his theory, but he expected that to change as we learned and discovered more. Unfortunately for Darwin, the geological record has been developed to a much greater degree in the past 150 years, and the lack of "intermediate links" is so great that Darwinists such as Stephen Jay Gould have resorted to proposing theories like punctuated equilibrium.

Punctuated equilibrium posits that, for unknown reasons, evolution works very slowly for longs periods of time, followed by great change in relatively short periods of time. This does not really conform to Darwin's theory, which in his own words, "can never take a great and sudden leap, but must advance by short and sure, though slow steps." It is modern evolution's attempt to explain away a fossil record that doesn't support their theory of life's development.

We hope that this article was able to clarify some of the misconceptions perpetuated in "Considering creationism offers interesting insight." The author's use of the straw-man argument to attack creationism and his blind acceptance of evolution (presumably both macro and micro) necessitated a response for the sake of clarity.

European Creationists Take On Darwin


By Jens Lubbadeh

The US isn't the only place with heated debates about Darwin's theory of evolution: Europe has its own hardcore creationists and intelligent design backers, too. Increasingly, they are making their voices heard.

He hesitated because he knew full well that his findings would have dramatic consequences on established notions of the world. For 20 years, Charles Darwin kept his revolutionary ideas about evolution to himself. "It's like confessing to a murder," he wrote to a friend.

His anxiety was justified -- because it was no less than God himself who would fall victim to his theory of evolution. And so Darwin, a former student of theology who was married to a deeply devout woman, put off publishing his groundbreaking work "On the Origin of Species." In the end, he only published it when he did because he was forced to. Otherwise, Alfred Russel Wallace -- who had proposed his own theory of natural selection -- would have beat him to it.

But Darwin was right. Even while alive, he stirred up legions of people hostilely opposed to his ideas. Now, 150 years later, he continues to do the same. Fundamentalist Christians who believe in creationism -- which holds that God created the world and humanity in the manner described in the Bible -- reject the principle of evolution and are striking back. They are pushing for the use of school texts that vilify the theory of evolution as a mere ideology. They have sued to have the theory of intelligent design -- a water-down version of creationism -- taught in biology courses at the same time as evolution, as both an equally valid scientific theory and alternative to evolution.

"It would be like claiming a right to teach astrology in a physics course," said James Williams, a lecturer in science education at the University of Sussex, at a conference entitled "Attitude and Knowledge Concerning Evolution and Science in Europe" held in Dortmund on Feb. 20. Williams has studied the influence that creationists have had in the United Kingdom. And it is big: According to a survey conducted in 2006, the majority of British have their doubts about evolution, and 40 percent want creationism taught in biology classes.

Scientists agree that the overwhelming mass of evidence supports the theory of evolution. "No serious scientist questions the theory of evolution," says Ralf Sommer, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Tübingen. "The only thing being discussed is the mechanisms of evolution, and that is a rather animated field of study."

The guerrilla tactics used against evolution continue to be the same: Evolution's opponents try to discredit Darwin's broader theory by looking for gaps and narrower scientific issues that remain answered.

As Williams sees it, the fact that evolution is such a basic principle and lively field of scientific inquiry makes it a natural place to find so many open questions. But that's no reason to cast doubt on the theory of evolution as a whole. "Even though no physicist has been able to explain why objects have mass," Williams adds, "no one questions the theory of gravity."

Scientists today also know that evolution is verifiable because you don't have to wait millions of years to see it in action. "Evolution can sometimes happen very quickly," says Claus Wedekind, an evolutionary biologist from the University of Lausanne -- so quickly, in fact, that scientists can sometimes observe it within the space of one human generation.

Intelligent design and creationism, on the other hand, are not scientific theories because they aren't falsifiable: They postulate the existence of a deity, a divine creation and guided evolution -- all things that can never be empirically proved or disproved.

Not Just Americans

This type of reasoning hasn't stopped people from doubting the theory of evolution. In Germany, 20 percent of the population doesn't believe in the theory; in the US, it's closer to one-third.

For many years, people have viewed creationism as a purely American phenomenon. The fact is, however, that there are also creationist currents in Europe, too, and an anti-evolution movement that is even less homogenous than the one in the US. On one side, you can find the creationists, who are splintered into groups of hard-line "Young Earth" creationists and supporters of intelligent design. On the other side, you find the churches, who have not taken a definitive stance on the issue.

In June 2007, the Council of Europe's Committee on Culture, Science and Education released a report entitled "The Dangers of Creationism in Education." According to Anne Brasseur, a member of the council who collaborated on the report, its goal was to firmly anchor the theory of evolution in school curricula.

The report was prompted by resistance to teaching Darwin's theory in some European countries. "For example," Brasseur explains, "the former deputy education minister of Poland called the theory of evolution a lie."

She went on to list a number of other negative examples:

The Catholic Church's position on evolution is unclear. Pope Benedict XVI has stated that the theories of evolution and creation are not mutually exclusive and, in July 2007, that "there is much scientific proof in favor of evolution." Still, in April 2007, he wrote in a theological book published in Germany that the existence of evolution was "not ultimately provable."

In 2005, Austrian Cardinal Christoph Schönborn published an opinion piece in the New York Times entitled "Finding Design in Evolution," in which he discussed a theory of creation that included the theory of a guided evolution -- in short, intelligent design.

The Evolution of the Church's Position

"Carninal Schönborn is just doing his job," stated one audience member attending the conference in Dortmund. "Religion is competing with other religions and worldviews. Science is so bad about defending itself against creationist attacks because it doesn't claim to be communicating a worldview."

Under these circumstances, scientists have been much more likely to find themselves reacting to creationist attacks than taking pro-active action. And they haven't been doing a particularly good job of defending themselves.

There have also been further attempts at dialogue. Günther Pass, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Vienna, is the head of a seminar focused on teaching in the natural sciences. He recounts a public discussion between Schönborn and a molecular biologist that "didn't get much past small-talk."

Only a few in the scientific community have chosen to fight back, such as the famous British evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, who has said about theories such as intelligent design: "The alleged convergence between religion and science is a shallow, empty, hollow, spin-doctored sham."

At previous times in history, the Catholic Church has espoused different positions on evolution. John Paul II, for example, the predecessor of the current pope, apparently gave some recognition to Darwin's theory when he said in 1996 that: "The theory of evolution is more than a hypothesis." (Many observers have contested this translation of the original French text, however, claiming the pontiff actually meant "more than one hypothesis.")

According to Brasseur, however, Pope Benedict XVI's Vatican criticized the Council of Europe's report -- without success. The council ultimately approved the report's recommendations, with 48 votes in favor and 25 against. As for Germany's five representatives on the council, three voted against the report, one voted for it and one abstained.

The strange evolution of "intelligent design"


Scott Johnson reviews a new book that traces the debate over intelligent design--and its anti-materialist roots.

February 26, 2009

THE RALLYING cry of the intelligent design (ID) movement is that Charles Darwin's theory of evolution is "only a theory" and that schools should "teach the controversy." They then go about attempting to poke holes in this mere "theory"--ignoring that relativity and even Newtonian mechanics are also "theories"--with little to show for their own theory.

Every attempt to explain a presumably unexplainable adaptation by evoking the theory of an "intelligent designer" eventually collapses under the weight of research that shows the evolutionary roots of the organism or its trait.

In spite of--or probably because of--the weaknesses of their arguments, ID supporters prefer to focus on the "gaps" in Darwinian evolution, no matter how small, rather than talk about the background to their own theory. Many biologists who provide brilliant and devastating critiques of ID tend to keep the argument on this ground as well, reluctant to take on the philosophical implications behind either theory.

There are a number of excellent books upholding the science of natural selection and criticizing the pseudo-science of intelligent design, but few look the philosophy behind the ID movement square in the face and challenge it on those terms. Critique of Intelligent Design by John Bellamy Foster, Brett Clark and Richard York attempts to rectify this situation.

The modern roots of the intelligent design movement lie in the1987 Supreme Court ruling Edwards v. Aguillard, which ruled that teaching Biblical creation as an alternative to evolution was an unconstitutional endorsement of religion. The vague notion of an intelligent designer--possibly but not necessarily a God or other supernatural force, but not requiring a religious commitment to the Garden of Eden or Noah's Ark--suddenly became the new theory of creationists.

A creationist book in the making called Creation Biology was renamed Of Pandas and People, with the word "creationism" crudely substituted with "intelligent design" throughout, a fact that would expose the religious roots of the ID movement in a 2005 trial.

An even bigger exposé, however, occurred with the publication of the Discovery Institute's "Wedge Document"--an explicit multi-year battle plan documenting the actual goals of the movement's leading think-tank. Never meant for public eyes, this document was "liberated" in 1999 by a part-time worker entrusted with copying it and his tech-savvy friend who posted it on the Internet.

In one key passage quoted by Bellamy et al, we find that "The Discovery Institute's Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture seeks nothing less than the overthrow of materialism and its cultural legacies." Elsewhere, the document states that their goal is to change attitudes on "sexuality, abortion and belief in God."

SO IT is clear that the background and purpose of ID are religious, but a further theme of Critique of Intelligent Design is the anti-materialist roots of the ID arguments. These neo-creationists are opponents of all of the obvious figures in materialist philosophy and the scientific revolution such as Charles Darwin, Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud. But they also have a particular bone to pick with Epicurus, the ancient Greek materialist philosopher who was a contemporary of Plato and Aristotle.

According to leading ID ideologue William Dembski, "All roads lead to Epicurus and the train of thought he set in motion." Apparently, this is a grudge going back many centuries before Christ.

ID proponents despise Epicurus because he rejected the interference of the Gods as explanations of the material world and even had a crude theory of evolution to explain the development of life. While he avoided engaging in politics in favor of contemplating philosophy in his academic "Garden," he admitted women and slaves to study as equals--unlike other Greek academies. Karl Marx, who was impressed by his philosophy, would later write his doctoral dissertation on Epicureanism.

In return for his philosophical contributions, as Critique explains, Western thinkers have attacked and downplayed the ideas of Epicurus for centuries. Dante's Inferno "consigned Epicurus and his followers to an eternity of torture in open coffins in the sixth circle of Hell."

The Catholic theologian Thomas Aquinas rejected Epicurus in favor of the idealist Plato because he "denied that there is any providence" and "held that the world came about by chance." Aquinas also argued that the material world was directed by some "intelligence...like an archer giving a definite motion to an arrow to wing its way to the end."

The book provides a specifically Marxist perspective that the authors employ in an attempt to avoid the traps of either ceding too much ground to religious ideas (as they argue radical paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould did) or simply retreating to a "crude atheism" that dismissively snubs its nose at religion:

As a materialist, Marx opted not to invest in the abstraction of God and religion. At the same time, he did not attempt to disprove the supernatural existence of God, since that transcended the real, empirical world and could not be answered, or even addressed, through reason, observation, and scientific inquiry...[A]s Marx observed in his Theses on Feuerbach, a crude atheism that sought to establish itself alongside traditional religion "as an independent realm in the clouds" had relatively little to offer. The critique of religion was therefore socially meaningful only to the extent that it...[was] rooted in "revolutionary practice."

Much of Critique of Intelligent Design discusses this centuries-long battle between materialists and anti-materialists. Fortunately, even though the book is more about philosophy than science and politics, it is not an unreadable tome of abstract ideas.

Rather, this slim volume is meant as an intervention in the discussion around intelligent design, giving a philosophical underpinning to the debate in a way that most scientific discussions do not. The book also provides a valuable and brief introduction to the history of materialist philosophy and its detractors.

What is surprising is how often the book is able to show that the battles against materialist ideas have invoked evidence of "intelligence" and a "designer," much like the arguments taking place in the classrooms and courtrooms today. The authors are quite convincing in using this fact to make the point that these arguments are not new not, are not going away, and are about even more than whether evolution is taught in the classroom.

Field Notices: Darwin in Iowa


February 26, 2009 - 12:00am
By: David Faldet

Only half of my ancestry is British, but sometimes more than half my heart goes out to the United Kingdom. That's particularly true this year when, to honor the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin's birth, the U.K. minted a two-pound coin that pictures the scientist's ape-like head staring a chimp eye to eye. The coin is ringed with a reminder that the great man's "On The Origin of Species" is now 150 years old.

In America, alas, and in my home state of Iowa, in the run-up to the 2008 caucuses, four pretenders to the presidency of the world's remaining superpower (Tancredo, Brownback, Paul and Huckabee) all flatly refused to accept Darwin's now 150-year-old evolutionary theory. One of that group, Mike Huckabee, handily won Iowa's Republican caucus vote.

This in a nation where, for seven years, if the truth about global warming or weapons of mass destruction in Iraq didn't fit, America's top leaders quietly set aside good evidence and replaced it with public relations, confident swagger and confessions-by-torture. It made me wonder if we, as citizens, were gluttons for torment.

On the eve of Darwin's 200th birthday a Gallup poll of Americans showed that only 14 percent accept his theory of natural selection, a theory that favorable traits survive to a new generation better than unfavorable ones. Natural selection is the basic engine of evolutionary change.

A Pew Research Center poll in 2006 found that 58 percent of Americans would prefer that schools teach creationism, an article of religious faith, alongside Darwin's evolution, a testable theory which science has found to be more and more robust in the 150 years since Darwin first published it.

Iowa's favored Republican, Huckabee, defended his broad-mindedness by conceding, in a press conference, "If you want to believe that you and your family came from apes, I'll accept that." His answer shows an inexact understanding of Darwin, and blurs religion and science, equating a repeatedly confirmed scientific theory with other "beliefs" more or less as those who would have teachers introduce creationism in schools are happy to introduce religion into a science class.

Faith in a seven-day creation or an intelligent universal designer with a special love for humans keeps Americans like Huckabee from embracing Darwin's lens for viewing the long and messy story of life on planet earth.

To give Americans credit, even Darwin wrestled with the implications his theories had for his faith. He started out as a biblical literalist who considered a career in the clergy. Slowly and grudgingly he shifted from literalism to deism to his ultimate position of agnosticism, admitting in an autobiography he did not publish that, "the mystery of the beginning of all things is insoluble to us."

The over 80 percent of Americans who let faith or ignorance stand in the way of Darwin's science fail to see the evidence that is all around us. In the end, people and the planet both end up paying a price.

You don't have to squint backward to the long-vanished quadruped ancestor people share with chimps to see evolution at work. Two Princeton researchers, Peter and Rosemary Grant, beginning in 1973, have demonstrated that in a mere 25 generations, finches on the Galapagos Islands (where Darwin firmed up his own original theories by observation) have changed their beak size and behavior to adapt to environmental shifts in food supply. This change is evolutionary because it has ultimately made one group of adapted finches unlikely to mate with the other.

In our own bodies, the evolution of bacteria favors those resistant to the antibiotics we use to control them, making common medicinal treatments less likely to be effective over time. In the fields that surround us, weeds that resist herbicides fare better over time than those killed by herbicides, and troublesome insects that tolerate insecticides survive at a higher rate than those sensitive to them.

In other words, natural selection, taking place as I write, affects our health and the abundance of our food supply.

An insight into evolutionary thinking is responsible for big walleyes being caught over the last few years in the river below campus. For years the Iowa Department of Natural Resources stocked the Upper Iowa with the offspring of pike drawn from Iowa lakes: offspring that failed to survive. Then one day some bright evolutionary thinker realized that the offspring of river walleyes might be genetically better disposed to thrive in a river. Result: naturally selected thriving fish.

The theory of evolution is basic to the study of not only biology but also human behavior—the most recent studies I've read that relied on evolutionary theory explain why children put dirt and dirty objects in their mouths and why people prefer, in potential mates, a flat belly button with a t-shaped crease.

This, ultimately, is why I join the Brits in celebrating Darwin. He moved from "On the Origin of Species" to "The Descent of Man," putting aside religious reservation and embracing the facts that presented themselves to him: that people are not set apart from the rest of the animal and vegetable world, but a piece of it.

Like the Darwin on the British coin, when I look at an ape I'm happy to admit that I recognize a not-so-distant cousin whose future on the planet is controlled by the very same forces that affect my own.

If Evolution's Dangerous, Geology's Not Far Behind


Robert M. Thorson February 26, 2009

When celebrating the birthday of a 2-year-old, parents usually light two candles on the cake. When celebrating Darwin's bicentennial birthday, it makes sense to write two columns. Here's my second metaphorical candle written in his honor.

According to the latest national Gallup Poll on evolution (2007), nearly half of all Americans still do not believe in evolution. Darwin would be disappointed, but hardly surprised: He learned from gut-wrenching personal experience that accepting natural selection takes intellectual courage, as well as intellectual ability.

For the moment, nonbelievers have lost their legal fight to have creationist ideas taught in public school classrooms. But over the long haul, they've been overwhelmingly successful in delaying its teaching until later grades and watering the subject down in biology curriculums and textbooks. From my point of view, however, their most important success has been the virtual elimination of physical geology from the competitive high school track, and of historical geology from the non-college track. These subjects figured very prominently in Darwin's most famous work, "The Origin of Species By Means of Natural Selection."

This is self-evident from a simple word search of the full Guggenheim Project electronic text of the "Origin." Enter the words "geological" and "geology," and you will come up with 101 and 21 hits, respectively, one in the first sentence. Search for biology, zoology or botany, with or without their "-ical" suffix, and you will come up with nothing.

The connection between Darwin and geology is thoroughly documented by the historian Sandra Herbert in her award-winning book "Charles Darwin, Geologist." She writes: "As a young man, Darwin was known both popularly and professionally as a geologist. In February 1859, the Geological Society awarded him its highest honor, the Wollaston Medal, for his signal contributions to the field." At the time, he was 50 years old. Publication of the "Origin" was eight months hence.

Fossils? Egads! What a dangerous idea for the high school curriculum. Better skip that. Extinction? Yikes! Better skip that, too. Darwin's contributions to the understanding of earthquake process, tectonic uplift, coral reefs, glacial erratics and invertebrate paleontology? No way! He couldn't be right about all that and wrong about evolution. To downplay evolution, we must downplay the whole man.

The deep time of geology is the world's second-most dangerous idea because it gave rise to the world first-most dangerous idea, natural selection. In the conclusion to the "Origin," Darwin wrote: "The chief cause of our natural unwillingness to admit that one species has given birth to another and distinct species, is that we are always slow in admitting great changes of which we do not see the steps. The difficulty is the same as that felt by so many geologists, when [pioneering geologist Sir Charles] Lyell first insisted that long lines of inland cliffs had been formed, and great valleys excavated, by the agencies which we still see at work. The mind cannot possibly grasp the full meaning of the term of even a million years."

Darwin took the deep time of geology and applied it not to the incremental transformation of a valley, but to the incremental transformation of living organisms, most famously to the finches of the Galapagos Islands.

The threat to creationism posed by deep time explains why the most hard-core nonbelievers are "young Earth creationists." They insist that Earth is no more than about 6,000 years old, and spend their days trying to fit the mythos of Genesis into the logos of Earth system history, now 4.6 billion years in the making.

Of course, there are other reasons geoscience is downplayed in the high school curriculum that have nothing to do with evolution. The competitive college-prep curriculum emphasizes the fundamental physical sciences of physics and chemistry, and the one humans have the most natural affinity for, which is biology. Curriculum gurus can be happy about this because it saves geology for those not on the college track who need to meet state-mandated science requirements.

But perhaps I'm wrong about this. Being an integrated composite of physics, chemistry, biology, planetary science and history, geology might just be too rock-hard to teach.

• Robert M. Thorson is a professor of geology at the University of Connecticut's College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and a member of The Courant's Place Board of Contributors. His column appears every other Thursday. He can be reached at profthorson@yahoo.com.

Evolution was racist


Category: Evolution
Posted on: February 26, 2009 7:12 PM, by Razib

I just got pointed to Confronting Evolution's Racists Roots via my RSS. This is a common tactic. And it might work for unsophisticated people on the margins. Just like a tract like "Christianity's racist past" would also sell. Or, "Socialism's white supremacist heritage." But intellectually it's a rather low-brow tactic. The real question is: Is It True? The racism of European intellectuals and the racialist inferences made from evolutionary theory are of historical interest, but not of scientific ones. It isn't as if a tract with the title "Jesus Christ, Semitic Supremacist," would disabuse most Christians of the truth of their faith.

This really doesn't matter except in a meta sense. Many Intelligent Design proponents want to recast their movement as something separate & distinct from the crass lowbrow methods of Young Earth Creationism. John West, who is flogging Darwin's racism in the article (and has done so elsewhere) is a fellow at the Discovery Institute. Of course it doesn't surprise me that they're going this route, but it confirms.

War of the Irrationals


Contributed by Bill Blocher - Posted: February 26, 2009 12:00:00 PM

Let the battle begin.

Or continue, in this case.

The battle is Evolution vs. Creationism, er, Intelligent Design.

It's actually creationism, but since the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that is religion and can't be taught in the schools, the anti-evolution folks (or is it pro-creationism folks? I can never decide which. Perhaps it's both.) have put new clothes on their doctrine, clothing it in pseudo-science as intelligent design in an attempt to get around the court's ruling.

What it is is a battle found in misconceptions about what science and religion are supposed to do.

The battle has been waged across the country with varying degrees of success.

In Florida, a Jacksonville Republican state senator by the name of Stephen Wise plans to introduce a bill that would require teachers who bring evolution into their class to also talk about intelligent design.

Personally, on one level, I don't care whether that passes or not - provided that all the law says is that science teachers have to talk about intelligent design - and does not define what is meant by that.

My bet is that the framers of this law have to be careful how they word it. If the law is too blatant about creationism it stands a good chance of getting thrown out by the courts.

The reason I don't care is that a discussion about intelligent design does not have to even touch on creationism - the belief that the creation story in Genesis is how the deity actually created the world, in six days and all.

Let's face it, both sides of this debate have partisans who are hanging over the edge of reason, dangerously so.

Now that won't sound strange when talking about radical religious types, but most people think of scientific types as logical and reasonable.

That is a mistake. Just because someone has a PhD in physics, or biology, does not mean that person is reasonable. It just means they spent a lot of time learning and have the intellect to master a particular subject.

It does not mean that they are dispassionate observers of the world.

So on the one side, you have a group of folks who think that the world could only have been created by an intelligence - and that intelligence's plan is laid out in the Bible.

On the other side, you have another group who think that the world was created by random actions of various chemicals coming together by chance - their version of evolution.

One of them may be right for all I can prove.

But neither side can prove it is right, which is why I am indifferent about both.

For the evolutionist nuts to win, they would have to prove the deity doesn't exist, or at least is an indifferent, uninvolved bystander. Since that is impossible, all they can do is go into a state of denial.

On the other side, the creationist deny that intelligent design means anything besides what they want it to mean - that the world was created in six days.

They can't prove that, either. So they just appeal to the infallibility of their faith.

What seems to occur to neither side is that if you have an all powerful deity, you should be willing to concede the possibility that this deity could create the world, and the universe, using a natural process to do it.

That natural process is commonly called evolution. And if it is done by the deity, then that process is intelligent design as well.

That, at least to me, is Intelligent Design. And that means, really, all a teacher has to do is say something about how evolution is a form of intelligent design.

I doubt that would make Sen. Wise et al happy, but that's life.

The mistake both sides make is confusing the role of religion and science.

The pro-Creationists want religion to explain how - how life starts, how it develops.

The fanatics on the other side want science to explain why - why is there life, why are humans here?

The problem is that neither position will produce satisfactory answers except to those with blinders on.

Religion's purpose is to explain, or at least attempt to explain, the why's of life. Why are we alive? What is our purpose? Why do bad things happen? Why do good things happen? (We usually don't question those, but we should.)

Science is there to answer the how question - how do things work? How did life start and develop? How are stars created? How does a wheel work? How do we cure disease?

Both disciplines can work marvelously, and provide great benefit and comfort to people, when they are used properly to answer the questions they are equipped to answer.

We get into trouble when we force one discipline or the other to stray over the line into the other's domain.

And we create unnecessary arguments and pain as we try to force our beliefs on each other.

For the Creationists, if your kids go to a biology class and they talk about evolution, sit them down and have a conversation about why you think that is wrong.

But don't try to shield your kids from opposing opinions. That is how they learn.

For the evolutionists, if your kids want to go to Bible class, let them. They might come back better people.

As for Sen. Wise, get a life. We are facing an economic crisis that is devastating our classrooms. Let's worry about educating our kids before we go off on needless tangents.

Permalink: http://odds.theledger.com/default.asp?item=2339808

Scientist's work sparks 150 years of controversy


Feb 26, 2009 By Chuck Flagg

This month marks 200 years since the birth of Charles Darwin, the noted British naturalist. It also marks 150 years since the publication of his important scientific book, "On the Origin of the Species." The theory his work postulated then ignited a religious controversy that persists to our own day.

Charles Darwin was born in Shrewsbury, England, on Feb. 12, 1809. Both his father and grandfather were prosperous physicians, and he studied medicine for a while at Edinburgh University in Scotland.

After losing interest in this field, Darwin studied to become an Anglican priest at England's Cambridge University.

One of his teachers was a botanist, the Rev. John Hemslow, who encouraged Darwin to take an extended sea voyage after his graduation.

He became the unpaid naturalist and gentleman's companion to the ship's captain. He spent the five-year voyage collecting and sketching specimens of all kinds of plants and animals he found in southern South America.

When he returned to England, he arranged his notes and read widely in scientific literature, eventually developing his theory of evolutionary change through natural selection.

In simplest terms, he suggested that minute differences between representatives within a species increase survival rates for some of them, allowing them to pass along these advantageous traits to their offspring while others die out and leave no offspring.

In 1859, Darwin finally published the famous book that explained his theory (a testable explanation of how things work, based on observations and measurements) to the general public for the first time. It ignited an immediate controversy.

Spokesmen for Christian groups attacked Darwin's theory, saying that it directly contradicts the account of creation found in the Bible, specifically, chapters one and two of Genesis. Analysis of the Bible implied an earth approximately 6,000 years old, much too brief a time for natural selection to function.

Also, the random process suggested by Darwin conflicted with the understanding of a God who individually created each species to remain the same for eternity.

These opponents, called "creationists," consider evolutionism the same as atheism and have fought to make sure public schools don't weaken children's Christian faith by teaching evolutionary theory as fact.

A famous courtroom battle over this issue took place in Tennessee in 1925. Thomas Scopes, a biology teacher, was arrested for teaching the theory of evolution in his classroom, violating a state law. After a high-profile trial, the first to be broadcast on radio, Scopes was found guilty and fined $100, though the verdict was later overturned on a technicality.

There are still battles in states and school districts across the country concerning the place of "creationism" or "intelligent design" and "evolutionism" within public school science courses.

Next month, the Texas Board of Education will decide whether the state's new science curriculum should continue to require discussion in science classes of the strengths and weaknesses of Darwin's theory, and the vote is expected to be close.

Meanwhile, many people of faith, who are also scientists, insist that evolution and Christianity are not necessarily in conflict, a view adopted by many progressive clergy and theologians.

The Public Broadcasting Service program "Religion and Ethics Newsweekly" recently examined the evolution/creationism controversy. One participant, Dr. Francis Collins, an evangelical Christian who led the Human Genome Project, suggested a comprehensive view that may avoid this forced choice:

"If God, who is outside space and time, chose to create a universe and populate it with creatures in his image with whom he could have fellowship, who are we to say that the process that we as scientists have uncovered - the Big Bang, the formation of stars and planets, and the mechanism of evolution to create life and ultimately human life - is not the way we would have done it? I find that enormously satisfying. Nothing that I know as a scientist is in contradiction to that. Nothing that I know as a believer is in contradiction to that."

Chuck Flagg is a retired teacher with a passion for religion. Write him c/o The Dispatch, P.O. Box 22365 Gilroy, CA 95021.

Anti-evolution bill in Iowa


Posted on: February 26, 2009 11:40 PM, by Tara C. Smith

I am so incredibly tardy with this information that Arizonian John Lynch and the lovely folks at Uncommon Descent have already blogged this, but recently an "academic freedom" bill was introduced in Iowa. For those who may be unfamiliar, in addition to "teach the controversy," these "academic freedom" bills are one of the new tactics for creationists who want to introduce creationism into science classrooms via the back door by claiming that teachers need the protection to teach "the full range of scientific views" when it comes to evolution (in other words, to teach creationism/ID). The bill states that:

It is therefore the intent of the general assembly that this Act be construed to expressly protect the affirmative right and freedom of every instructor at the elementary, secondary, and postsecondary level to objectively present scientific information relevant to the full range of scientific views regarding biological and chemical evolution in connection with teaching any prescribed curriculum regarding chemical or biological evolution.

As John notes, we've circulated a petition showing opposition to the bill (this was covered Wednesday in The Chronicle of Higher Education), and the latest word is that the bill is unlikely to get anywhere. (Fellow blogger John Logsdon had a few choice quotes in the article).

This is the first anti-evolution bill in Iowa in roughly a decade, and according to Glenn Branch at the NCSE (quoted in The Chronicle article), the first state-wide effort by college faculty to organize opposition to these bills. So far, similar bills died in Mississippi and Oklahoma, were signed into law in Louisiana, and are still pending here in Iowa and in Missouri, Alabama, and New Mexico. Expect to see more of these in the future.

Finally, if you're an Iowan and you're not on the Iowa Citizens for Science email list yet, drop me a line (Iowascience at gmail dot com).

200 years after Darwin's birth, evolutionary theory is still a bone of contention


By Sharon Roznik • The Reporter sroznik@fdlreporter.com • February 27, 2009

As the U.S. marks the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin's birth, high schools still tread evolutionary steps lightly.

Much of the scientific world believes that the fear of controversy has stunted the scientific literacy of the country. In a time of global change and medical breakthroughs, American high school students rank 27th among students from developed nations in scientific literacy, according to the First Amendment Center.

"The unfortunate thing is anytime the discussion comes up, it pits science against religion — and for people who truly understand evolution, that's not the issue," said John Whitsett, curriculum coordinator for Fond du Lac Schools and retiring president of the National Science Teachers Association.

Instead, he said, Darwin's observations of species should be used to explore the future.

"The problem so many people have with evolution is we all want to look backward to the origin of human beings. When I was teaching physics, if a kid asked me if humans evolved from chimpanzees, I always said I don't know and don't really care," Whitsett said.


Understanding the way evolution works will guide new generations being forced to make monumental global decisions.

"Look at how bacteria has changed, evolved over generations, because people overused antibiotics. Look at mosquitoes who developed resistance to DDT, because all of them didn't die when it was used back in the '60s,' he said.

Because Creationism is a foundation of belief at Winnebago Lutheran Academy, Darwin's work is taught as one of error, said science teacher Kris Clausnitzer. All aspects of the parochial school's curriculum are regarded in "light of God's word," she said.

"We talk about Darwin and try to point out the errors in his theories, and we talk about what we believe. Subjects like biology, anatomy, and physiology, we teach it like anyone else, but we also approach it as a study of God's genius," she said.

Both biology teachers at St. Mary's Springs High School declined to comment, and Principal Tom Wonderling said he would not discuss the topic of evolution.

Other views

College students at Marian University who said they believed in evolution also expressed interest in hearing other views, like that of Creationism, said biology Professor Maggie Wentzell.

"When I asked them about their high school experiences, and what they learned about evolution, the answers varied. Some of the students said none at all, but when questioned more closely, they said that they did learn about mutations, genetic drift, natural selection and so on. The students who answered came from at least four different Wisconsin high schools," she said.

Wentzell believes most people simply do not study in depth or understand evolution methodology,

"Even biology students in college are not necessarily exposed to rigorous interpretations of this information. Perhaps they are given the information but not given the opportunity to see how it fits into a larger picture," she said.

Dennis Holm, biology teacher at St. Lawrence Seminary in Mount Calvary, recalls that when he first began teaching 30 years ago, evolution was thought to be the overriding principle of biology and took up the first couple chapters in science textbooks.

"Now it's chapter 16 or 17, coming after cell biology and genetics and the like. I teach all biology relative to the nature of scientific methodology, problem solving and critical thinking," Holm said. "As far as my students go, I think they have a good grasp that we are talking about evolution as scientific information and it is a topic that will be constantly tested."

Whitsett said people should hold fast to the basic tenets of evolution and apply them to the ever-changing fields of medicine, genetics and the environment. After all, he maintained, the essence of science is to observe and collect knowledge to predict future actions.

"It's not going head-to-head with religion. It's looking forward and making rational decisions. That's the message we really try to leave with kids," he said.

One in five believe in creationism


Friday 27 February 2009

One in five Dutch people believe God created the world in six days, according to research quoted in Friday's Trouw.

Protestants are much more likely than Catholics to believe in the Biblical creation story, the figures from research bureau Synovate show.

Synovate questioned 908 people about their beliefs. Their answers showed that young people are just as likely as their elders to believe in creationism. Some 25% of low skilled people believe the world was made in six days, as do 19% of those with university education.

A similar survey from the Maurice de Hond polling organisation also showed around 20% believe in creationism.

Liberal reputation

Trouw says the high percentage of believers explains the row earlier this year when a popular tv presenter for the staunchly Protestant EO channel apologised to viewers for misleading them by saying that the world was created in six days.

Despite its liberal reputation, the Netherlands has a strong Protestant core, mainly living in a belt sweeping across the centre of the country. There are two orthodox Christian parties in parliament which accept the creation as fact. Between them, they have eight MPs. One, ChristenUnie, is part of the current coalition government with the Christian Democrats and Labour.

Last week, a group of orthodox Christians began distributing a leaflet describing evolution as an 'unproven theory' to every household in the country.

© DutchNews.nl

Prints Show a Modern Foot in Prehumans


February 27, 2009

Footprints uncovered in Kenya show that as early as 1.5 million years ago an ancestral species, almost certainly Homo erectus, had already evolved the feet and walking gait of modern humans.

An international team of scientists, in a report on Friday in the journal Science, said the well-defined prints in an eroding bluff east of Lake Turkana "provided the oldest evidence of an essentially modern humanlike foot anatomy." They said the find also added to evidence that painted a picture of Homo erectus as the prehumans who took long evolutionary strides — figuratively and, now it seems, also literally.

Where the individuals who made the tracks were going, or why, is beyond knowing by the cleverest scientist. The variability of the separation between some steps, researchers said, suggests that they were picking their way over an uneven surface, muddy enough to leave a mark — an unintended message from an extinct species for the contemplation of its descendants.

Until now, no footprint trails had ever been associated with early members of our long-legged genus Homo. Preserved ancient footprints of any kind are rare. The only earlier prints of a protohuman species were found in 1978 at Laetoli, in Tanzania. Dated at 3.7 million years ago, they were made by Australopithecus afarensis, the diminutive species to which the famous Lucy skeleton belonged. The prints showed that the species already walked upright, but its short legs and long arms and its feet were in many ways apelike.

Studying the more than a dozen prints, scientists determined that the individuals had heels, insteps and toes almost identical to those in humans, and that they walked with a long stride similar to human locomotion.

The researchers who made the discovery, as well as independent specialists in human origins, said the prints helped explain fossil and archaeological evidence that erectus had adapted the ability for long-distance walking and running. Erectus skeletons from East Asia revealed that the species, or a branch of it, had migrated out of Africa as early as 1.8 million years ago.

The lead author of the journal report, Matthew R. Bennett, a dean at Bournemouth University in England, analyzed the prints with a new laser technology for digitizing their precise depths and contours. The tracks were excavated over the last three years by paleontologists and students directed by John W. K. Harris of Rutgers University in collaboration with the National Museums of Kenya.

Daniel E. Lieberman, a professor of biological anthropology at Harvard who studies the evolution of human locomotion but was not a member of the research group, said the prints established what experts had suspected for some time. Erectus, he said, "probably looked much like us, both walking and running over long distances."

Although the discoverers were cautious in attributing the prints to Homo erectus, Dr. Lieberman and other experts said in interviews that it was highly unlikely they could have been made by other known hominid contemporaries. "The prints are what you would expect from the erectus skeleton we have," said Leslie C. Aiello, president of the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research, which supported the research.

William L. Junger, a paleoanthropologist at Stony Brook University in New York, said the footprints were further evidence that erectus had "undergone a major structural change in body plan, and it's much like our own." One obvious exception: the erectus brain, which was more advanced than those of previous ancestors, but was still much smaller than the Homo sapiens brain.

No erectus foot bones have been found anywhere, but other well-preserved, yet incomplete, skeletons showed the species to be taller and less robust than earlier hominids. The strides of these footsteps suggest that the individuals were an average of 5 feet, 7 inches tall; one, presumably a child, was 3 feet tall.

The site of the discovery is about five miles east of Lake Turkana, near the village of Ileret, in northern Kenya.

Dr. Harris of Rutgers said that excavations from 2005 through last year yielded scores of animal tracks as well as the erectus footprints. Geological evidence indicates that they were made on the muddy surface of a floodplain in a time of nearby volcanic eruptions. Layers of volcanic ash, mixed with silt deposits, were examined to date the finds.

The tracks were confined to two layers of sediment, vertically separated by 15 feet and about 10,000 years. The upper layer contained three footprint trails, two of two prints each and one of seven prints, as well as several isolated prints. The lower layer preserved one trail of two prints and a single isolated print.

Dr. Bennett joined the project in 2007 to make three-dimensional digital records of the footprints. He also scanned the tracks of local people who walked through soil from the excavations. He said their prints, like those of other modern humans, were remarkably similar to the erectus prints. Later, digital images of casts of the prints from Laetoli showed marked differences in foot shapes.

Anatomists analyzing the Ileret prints said the heel, instep, balls of the foot and short toes were considerably distinct from the prints discovered in Tanzania and almost identical to modern humans. Most obviously, the big toe is in line with the rest of the toes, not angling away from other toes, as on an afarensis foot.

The footprints discovered in Kenya, researchers said, indicated that the erectus foot functioned much as a human foot does: the heel contacts the ground first; weight transfers along the arch to the ball of the foot; and the push-off is applied by the forefoot. In apes and apparently earlier hominids, this force comes from the midfoot.

The discovery is "even more explicit evidence," Dr. Harris said, that the erectus species extended its range into more diversified habitats, camping and discarding stone tools at sites far from the sources of the stone.

Copyright 2009 The New York Times Company

Turkey evolves as creationist center


ISTANBUL - This year marks 150 years since the birth of evolution. While Charles Darwin's original theory has since been strengthened, a reactionary movement has been spreading globally, due in part to a political atmosphere in Turkey that has been conducive to its creation and growth

It has been two centuries since the birth of Charles Darwin, the father of the theory of evolution, and 150 years since he published "On the Origin of Species," changing how humanity viewed nature, science and itself forever. But today there is a growing worldwide movement to oppose Darwin's theory G and it is centered in Turkey.

Adnan Oktar, also known by his pen name Harun Yahya, is the leader of a devoted creationist and anti-Darwinist group G what some call a powerful cult. Though based in Turkey, he has been working for more than a decade to spread his message around the globe. He presides over dozens of Web sites where his books and pamphlets on the "fallacy of evolution," the virtues of Islam and Jesus's return can be read or downloaded in 43 languages. His full-page ads condemning the theory of evolution appear regularly not only in Turkish newspapers, but also in prestigious international magazines such as Time.

Oktar's followers call him as "Adnan Hoca," and he has two foundations, both aiming to discredit the theory of evolution around the world. The Milli Degerleri Koruma Vakfi (Foundation to Protect National Values) works domestically on a variety of "moral issues," while the creationism-focused Science Research Foundation (Bilim Arastirma Vakfi, or BAV) also has operations throughout the world and has organized more than 3,000 anti-evolution conferences, from the University of Oxford, in Cambridge, to Tokyo to Tel Aviv.

While many of his creationist counterparts in the West have promoted their ideas as an alternate scientific theory they've dubbed "intelligent design," Oktar has moved further into metaphysical idealism. He believes that we live in "a world of perceptions," or of dreams, in which we can only "interact with copy images" and not matter itself, a philosophy echoing metaphysicians such as Bishop George Berkeley.

Oktar's more than 200 books are distributed in some 150 countries.

His six-kilogram "Atlas of Creation" was sent for free to academics all over the world.

Oktar did not accept a face-to-face interview with Hürriyet Daily News & Economic Review, but answered questions by e-mail. The BAV translated his answers into English before sending them to this reporter.

What everyone wonders is where the money for this global anti-evolution campaign comes from. Referring to a previous interview, Oktar said the funding comes from "the sales of hard copies of his books," claiming that 8 million copies of his books were sold in Turkey and 2 million abroad just in 2007. In 2008, sales have doubled, he claimed. His publishing house, Global Publishing, "uses part of the income for distribution," he added. BAV, frequently accused of "brainwashing" its initiates, is also secretive about the source of its wealth. Seda Aral, an official from BAV, said that the foundation did not get any donations from Muslim or Christian creationist groups.

The reason the crusade against evolution is centered in Turkey is the "virtue of the Turkish nation," Oktar said. "The Turkish nation is devoted to national and spiritual values. It has never really taken Darwinism seriously."

"Evolution has come to an end in Turkey over the last 30 years," he added. "Of course, the instruments in this, by Allah's leave, have been the ... books I have written, the more than 2,000 conferences ... in many [Turkish] towns and provinces, scientific exhibitions and other meetings. The public has seen that Darwinism is the worst fraud in the history of science."

The belief in evolution is indeed lower in Turkey compared to Western European countries, as it is in the United States. Among 34 Western countries surveyed, the U.S. ranked 33rd, just above Turkey, in rates of those believing in evolution, according to a survey published by National Geographic in 2006.

The influence of conservative political leaders in Turkey, including the current Justice and Development Party, or AKP, government, in discrediting of the theory of evolution cannot be underestimated, academics said. With the 200th birthday of Darwin being commemorated, the tension is rising among Turkish scientists as they confront creationism by organizing conferences under the title "Darwin 2009."

"Creationism entered biology textbooks in high schools in 1985, after a cooperation between the creationist movement in the U.S. and the Turkish Education Ministry," said Aykut Kence, a professor of biology at Ankara's Middle East Technical University, or METU. "Turkey is the only secular state in the world that has creationism in its science textbooks."

Kence said the official approach in Turkey forced students to choose between evolution and creation, and that the result was harmful to both religion and science. "Later, in 2003 and 2004, the subject of evolution was completely cut off from science textbooks and was replaced by Islamic leaders' views on the issue," he said.

Kence hesitated to comment on the Oktar movement, since BAV has sued him twice and one of those cases is ongoing. Kence is not the first person to have been sued by Oktar. The anti-evolution leader succeeded in having the British scientist Richard Dawkins' Web site banned in Turkey by a court order.

Aslihan Tolun, a professor of molecular biology at Istanbul's Bogaziçi University, said creationism should be removed from textbooks.

Turkey's central position in the creationist movement owes much to the post-coup government of the late Turgut Özal, said Kenan Ates, an academic with Sabanci University's Biological Sciences and Bioengineering Program.

"The 'Acts and Facts' magazine published by the Institute for Creation Research, or ICR, revealed that Vehbi Dinçerler, Turkey's education minister in 1985, asked the ICR to help them expand creationism in Turkey," Ates told the Daily News.

Loretta Keller: Where God and science clash


Posted: 02/27/2009 05:13:55 PM PST

On the cover of Michael Shermer's book "Why Darwin Matters" (2006, Henry Holt and Co.) a chimpanzee is holding up a sign that says "The Case Against Intelligent Design."

Shermer shows that Intelligent Design, a theory which began in the early 1990s, is nothing more than old fashioned creationism in politically correct clothing. Creationists are mainly conservative Christians who base their views on the Bible and believe that God created fish with fins and gills intact and the first humans (Adam and Eve)only about 6,000 years ago.

However, Intelligent Design differs from creationism in that its official dogma makes no mention of God. It simply says the complexities of life are too awesome to have come about by natural means - life had to have been designed by a superior intelligence.

The curious thing is that Shermer, a La Ca ada Flintridge resident who is also the executive director of the Skeptics Society, used to be a creationist. And so was Charles Darwin!

When Darwin was a young man, he studied theology at Cambridge University, intending to make it his career. Even after his famous five-year voyage around the world he remained a creationist in spite of the surprising number of living species he found in the Galapagos Islands and his budding thoughts about natural selection and survival of the fittest.

Natural selection means those living plants, animals and people that are best adapted for life in their habitats will survive; those that are least well adapted will not, and over eons, in some cases, survival is aided by the natural changes we call mutations.

In a recent Pasadena Area Liberal Arts Center (PALAC) discussion group, the topic was "Why Darwin Matters." It seems inevitable that Darwin, Shermer and PALAC would converge and on Darwin's 200th birthday in February.

In 1925, three-time presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan was the defender of creationism in the famous Scopes "Monkey" trial in Tennessee. But the real issue, Shermer writes, wasn't whether or not Scopes taught evolution in school but "to see who would win the battle for humanity's soul." And Bryan, in what's been called "the most powerful argument against evolution ever made," averred that religion deals with the soul and "the logical effect of the evolutionary hypothesis is to undermine religion and thus affect the soul."

Darwin gradually became an agnostic after he left the Galapagos mainly because his faith in God was sorely tested by the pain and evil he saw in the world. But out of deference to his wife, Emma, who was a deeply religious woman, he delayed publishing his "On the Origin of Species" for 20 years, until 1859, when his theory of evolution was launched.

Though the scientific community agrees that evolution happened and is still happening, the book creates bitter arguments, even now, 150 years later.

According to the theory of evolution, the earliest humans (hominids) appeared on Earth six million years ago, when humans and apes evolved from the same ancestor.

No, we can't accuse someone we dislike of directly descending from an ape.

According to a Pew Research Center poll in 2005, 42 percent of Americans still hold creationist views, and 48 percent believe that human beings "evolved over time," through natural selection.

Over the years, the battleground shifted to that of endorsing the teaching of Intelligent Design in public school science classes. Because it makes no mention of the designer, its proponents insist it doesn't violate the Establishment (of religion) Clause of the First Amendment.

And, they add, because it's an alternate scientific theory to that of evolution, it deserves to be taught in schools. Thank God, the courts have consistently disagreed.

Shermer considers the Darwinian revolution one of the greatest scientific and cultural breakthroughs of all time.

In "Why Darwin Matters," he shows convincingly that Intelligent Design bears no relationship whatsoever to science. It's a powerful read.


Loretta Schertz Keller is an Altadena artist and freelance writer.

Reconciling Science, Religion


Vatican Sponsoring Conferences on Works of Darwin and Galileo

By Francis X. Rocca
Religion News Service
Saturday, February 28, 2009; B07


Over the next several months, the Vatican will sponsor academic conferences dedicated to the work of biologist Charles Darwin and astronomer Galileo Galilei, two thinkers whose ideas have posed revolutionary challenges to religious belief.

Featuring distinguished international panels of scientists and theologians, these events are the latest efforts by the Catholic Church under Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI to affirm that Christian faith and modern science are not at odds, but entirely compatible.

Yet some critics inside and outside the Church insist that such gestures do not satisfy the Vatican's duty to admit its historical role as an obstacle to scientific progress.

Unlike some conservative Protestant churches, which have rejected Darwin's theory of evolution through natural selection as contradicting the biblical account of creation, the Catholic Church has a record of guarded tolerance of Darwin's ideas.

Pope Pius XII permitted "research and discussions . . . with regard to the doctrine of evolution" in 1950, nearly a century after Darwin's theory was published; and John Paul II recognized evolution as "more than a hypothesis" nearly half a century later.

The church has won praise from scientists and religious believers in various traditions.

"The ongoing and vigorous engagement of the Catholic Church with evolutionary theory reflects, in my opinion, a fluid and dynamic pathway that combines a profound sense of continuity with its historical past and a living and open, experiential response to . . . the discoveries of science," said Robert J. Russell, founder of the Center for Theology and Natural Sciences in Berkeley, Calif.

Russell, a physicist and minister in the United Church of Christ, will be one of the speakers next month at a Vatican-sponsored conference marking the 150th anniversary of Darwin's book, "The Origin of Species."

In recent years, however, with the growing prominence of "creationism" and "intelligent design" as alternative explanations for the existence of humanity and the universe, Catholics have increasingly voiced doubts about Darwin's acceptability.

Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn, a friend and former student of Pope Benedict's, provoked controversy with a 2005 article arguing that "neo-Darwinian dogma" is not "compatible with Christian faith" and insisting that the "human intellect can readily discern purpose and design in the natural world."

That the cardinal published his article with the encouragement and assistance of proponents of intelligent design gave the impression that a high church official was endorsing ideas that most scholars reject as unscientific.

Schoenborn has since attempted to clarify his position, insisting that he rejects not the theory of evolution, but arguments that use Darwin's ideas to disprove the existence of a creator-God.

The Rev. Marc Leclerc made the same distinction recently in L'Osservatore Romano, the Vatican's newspaper. "Evolution and creation do not present the least opposition between them," he wrote, "on the contrary, they reveal themselves as entirely complementary."

Leclerc, lead organizer of the upcoming Darwin conference, said last year that no proponents of creationism or intelligent design had been invited to the event.

Yet the Vatican's embrace of Darwin remains a qualified one. The conference is "not, even minimally, a 'celebration' in honor of the English scientist," Leclerc said. "It is simply a matter of taking stock of the event that has forever marked the history of science and has influenced how we understand our own humanity."

By contrast, an official Vatican statement recently declared that the "Church desires to honor the figure of Galileo, innovator of genius and son of the church."

Those words introduced a series of Vatican-sponsored or -supported events to take place this year, which the United Nations has designated as the International Year of Astronomy, marking the 400th anniversary of the first use of an astronomical telescope by Galileo.

One of the most prominent of these events will be a May conference in Florence, Italy, devoted to the astronomer's conflicts with the Vatican, which silenced and imprisoned him for teaching that the Earth revolves around the sun.

The Church has been trying for centuries to put this embarrassing episode behind it. In 1981, John Paul II established a commission to reevaluate the case, and in 1992 he concluded that Galileo had fallen victim to a "tragic mutual incomprehension." That misunderstanding, the pope said, had given rise to a "myth" that the Church opposed free scientific inquiry.

John Paul's statement failed to satisfy prominent critics, including the Rev. George V. Coyne, former head of the Vatican Observatory, who has called for a fuller recognition that church authorities unfairly prevented Galileo from pursuing his research.

In January 2008, Pope Benedict canceled an appearance at a Rome university after faculty members and students protested his presence as an offense to the "secularity of science and of culture," citing words from a 1990 lecture in which he seemed to justify Galileo's condemnation.

Vatican officials are clearly hoping that this year's observances will clarify once and for all that the church now regards Galileo as not only a great scientist but an exemplary Catholic. Archbishop Gianfranco Ravasi, president of the Pontifical Council for Culture, has even spoken in terms that evoke sainthood, suggesting that Galileo "could become for some the ideal patron for a dialogue between science and faith."

Yet there is at least one honor for which Galileo will have to wait a little longer. Plans to put up a statue of the astronomer in the Vatican gardens this year have been "suspended," Ravasi said, voicing hopes that the money would be spent instead for educational projects on the "relationship between science and religion."

Join the real Darwin debate


There are fully 12 major theories of evolution in circulation but Canadians know little about any of them

By Douglas Todd, Vancouver Sun February 28, 2009

North American public schools and media are failing to educate the public about evolution -- especially about the 12 major theories explaining how the world evolved into being.

With all the attention given this month to the 150th anniversary of the Charles Darwin's earth-shattering book, On the Origin of Species, you would think evolution would be firmly embedded in the North American psyche. But there is chaos in the public's mind.

Many conservative Americans, steeped in Christian culture wars over abortion, homosexuality and six-day creationism, have become infamous for resisting the general tenets of evolution. And it turns out Canadians are almost as much in the dark as Americans.

An Angus Reid poll recently showed only 58 per cent of Canadians (compared to 42 per cent of Americans) accept the fundamental teaching of evolution; that "human beings evolved from less advanced life forms over millions of years."

It's disturbing that 24 per cent of Canadians (39 per cent of Americans) told Angus Reid pollsters they embrace Biblical creationism, or the belief that "God created human beings in their present form within the last 10,000 years." Another 20 per cent of Canadians said they weren't sure.

In other words, one out of four Canadians believe humans once walked with dinosaurs. Maybe I need to say the obvious: Even though this is the belief of B.C.-based Conservative party cabinet minister Stockwell Day, no mainstream biologist believes women and men co-existed with Tyrannosaurus Rex.

Before I get to the 12 different schools of evolutionary theory, I'll spell out how evolution is inadequately taught in many Canadian schools (and over-simplified by most media outlets.)

This is not only the case in many religious schools, where many of the country's 65,000 independent-school students are taught by taxpayer-funded teachers that creationism deserves more respect than Darwin-based evolutionary theory.

Most Canadian public school students are also not taught evolutionary theory in mandatory science classes. Retired B.C. high-school teacher Scott Goodman and others justifiably worry only a small sliver of Canadian students -- typically those who choose elective biology classes in Grades 11 or 12 -- ever focus on it.

The education systems' inadequate handling of evolutionary theory is partly based on political correctness.

Many governments and teachers are afraid of offending conservative Christians, Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses (often not recognizing mainstream Protestants and Catholics, as well as Buddhists and Hindus, generally accept evolution.)

In addition to the piecemeal teaching of evolution in Canadian public schools, which are a provincial jurisdiction, most university science classes offer students virtually no sense of the wide array of evolutionary theories in existence.

Whatever the cause of the lack of evolutionary education, it explains why polls show fewer than three out of five Canadians generally accept evolutionary thought, why conservative politicians across the country defend creationism and why the Royal Ontario Museum could not find any corporate sponsors in 2008 for its supposedly "controversial" exhibit on Charles Darwin.

Most media outlets also fall short on enlightening the public on this wide-ranging theory about the origins of life. These media contribute to a false-choice debate about evolution, acting as if there only two polarized camps -- neo-Darwinism and Biblical creationism.

A much richer discussion about evolution is occurring behind the scenes. It involves 12 current theories.

Only one of these evolutionary theories is neo-Darwinism, the school based on genetic mutation and random selection that is dominant in most universities.

Neo-Darwinism is advanced by high-profile, anti-religious biologists such as Richard Dawkins, author of The Selfish Gene and The God Delusion.

To my mind, some of the other 11 theories of evolution are more complete than neo-Darwinism.

I suspect there's more complexity to the universe's evolutionary process than Dawkins's reductionistic conclusion that: "We are survival mechanisms -- robot machines blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes."

Four of the alternative evolutionary theories to neo-Darwinism are exclusively scientific, making no reference to spirituality, writes Carter Phipps in a readable, comprehensive article on the 12 theories in a journal called EnlightenNext (formerly known as What is Enlightenment?)

For instance, one scientific theory highlights how cooperation is essential to the evolutionary process. This school is championed by American biologists such as Lynn Margulis, who shared her viewpoint with her late husband, noted astronomer Carl Sagan.

Another scientific-mathematical approach to evolution is "complexity theory," in which physicists such as Ervin Laszlo postulate that organisms have a "self-organizing" ability.

A group of evolutionary psychologists also strongly oppose Dawkins's view that selfish genes can explain everything. These social scientists are known as "directionalists" because they see elements of purpose in life.

At the other end of the theoretical pole are those who emphasize spiritual explanations for evolution.

One school is called Intelligent Design. It's typically proposed by evangelical Christians who find "young earth" creationism too crude.

Another spiritual explanation for evolution is associated with the New Age movement. It supports the esoteric form of evolution promoted in 1877 by Madame Blavatsky, founder of Theosophy.

The final cohort of evolutionary theories creatively melds elements of both science and spirituality.

The schools of thought in this category embrace both science and metaphysics in the name of developing a new synthesis on evolution. I'm drawn to how they discern both chance and purpose in the universe.

One of these evolutionary theories, "conscious evolution," is based on the work of rebel Jesuit paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. It proposes that humans are called to evolve in self-awareness. It has inspired everyone from Al Gore and Marshall McLuhan to Brian Swimme and Barbara Max Hubbard.

"Process philosophy" is another member of this group blending science and spirituality. Biologists such as Charles Birch and progressive Christian theologians such as John Cobb maintain the divine is "the creative advance into novelty," the source of the universe's process of change.

A final group profiled in the helpful series on the 12 theories of evolution is called "the integrationalists."

These thinkers follow the lead of philosopher Ken Wilber. They attempt to thoroughly integrate science, developmental psychology and mysticism into a comprehensive form of evolutionary understanding.

It's my hope this fascinating array of evolutionary theories will soon receive more media attention. But when will they be widely taught in Canadian or American public schools and universities? Not likely soon.

The North American education system is not yet that evolved.

ONLINE: Douglas Todd's blog is at www.vancouversun.com/thesearch

© Copyright (c) The Vancouver Sun

Synthetic life form grows in Florida lab



Creator: First synthetic genetic system capable of Darwinian evolution

By Irene Klotz
Discovery Channel
updated 11:24 a.m. PT, Fri., Feb. 27, 2009

When NASA began thinking about missions to look for life beyond Earth, it realized it had a problem: how to recognize life if it were found.

Scientists came up with a definition for life — a self-sustaining chemical system capable of Darwinian evolution — but remained understandably fuzzy on the details.

It is still not known how life on Earth took hold, what happened to a bunch of chemicals that made them capable of supporting a metabolism, replicating and evolution. But a new field of science, called synthetic biology, is aiming to find out.

One of the most promising developments lies in a beaker of water inside a Florida laboratory. It's an experiment called AEGIS — an acronym for Artificially Expanded Genetic Information System. Its creator, Steve Benner, says it is the first synthetic genetic system capable of Darwinian evolution.

AEGIS is not self-sustaining, at least not yet, and with 12 DNA building blocks — as opposed to the usual four — there's little chance it will be confused with natural life. Still, Benner is encouraged by the results.

"It's evolving. It's doing what we designed it to do," said Benner, a biochemist with the Gainesville, Fla.-based Foundation for Applied Molecular Evolution.

In addition to providing an example of how alien life might be cobbled together, synthetic biology has a broad array of uses on the home front.

"If you understand it, you can create it," Benner told Discovery News.

Scientists at the University of California at Berkeley, for example, have created an organism to produce artemisinic acid, which is used as a malaria medication. It is normally extracted from the Artemisia annua plant. The synthetic variety is expected to be less expensive to produce.

"The underlying goal of synthetic biology is to make biology easy to engineer," said Drew Endy, a bioengineer with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

"When I want to go build some new biotechnology, whether it makes a food that I can eat or a bio-fuel that I can use in my vehicle, or I have some disease I want to try and cure, I don't want that project to be a research project. I want it to be an engineering project," he said.

© 2009 Discovery Channel
URL: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/29430688/

© 2009 MSNBC.com

Iowa educators respond to evolution bill


Critics contend the bill is anti-evolution

By Kathy Hanson
Published: Wednesday, February 25, 2009 11:45 AM CST
Special to The Tribune

Some representatives from Iowa's regent universities are calling for the state Legislature to kill HF 183, "The Evolution Academic Freedom Act," introduced Feb. 3 by Rep. Rod Roberts, R-Carroll.

A statement released Tuesday includes a petition with more than 200 signatures by faculty opposing HF 183 from Iowa State University, the University of Iowa and the University of Northern Iowa, as well as from 17 other Iowa universities, colleges and community colleges, seven primary and secondary schools, and three research organizations.

The statement was written by Hector Avalos, ISU professor of religious studies; James W. Demastes, UI associate professor of biology; and Tara C. Smith, UI assistant professor of epidemiology.

According to the statement, HF 183 is one of many "academic freedom" bills that have been introduced in the last year that are sponsored and supported by the Discovery Institute, a "Seattle-based anti-evolution organization." Similar bills have been introduced in several states, including Alabama, Florida and Oklahoma. One such bill passed and was signed into law in Louisiana.

Robert Crowther Jr., Discovery Institute's communications director, said the Discovery Institute has not been directly involved in writing HF 183 but thinks it is likely Roberts crafted the bill's language along the lines of the institute's "model legislation."

"That's what we hoped would happen," Crowther said. "We want anyone interested in furthering academic freedom to use our resources."

Crowther said the Discovery Institute is often misrepresented as seeking to mandate teaching creationism or intelligent design.

"We simply want educators to be free to teach the strengths and weaknesses of the scientific theories involved in evolution," he said.

HF 183 states that college and high school teachers "often suffer discrimination or punishment for questioning evolution."

But Demastes, Smith and Avalos say state education departments have not found any cases of such discrimination, nor have the sponsors of these bills provided examples. A 2005 survey conducted by the National Science Teachers Association found that many teachers reported "significant community pressure to downplay or attack evolution."

Demastes, Smith and Avalos say support for HF 183 comes from "mostly conservative religious groups," such as the Iowa Christian Alliance, and not from "legitimate scientific or educational organizations," such as the Iowa State Education Association and the Iowa Department of Education, which oppose HF 183.

Norman Pawlewski, representing the Christian Alliance and one of two state lobbyists registered in favor of HF 183, said, "Why shouldn't teachers and students be able to decide among all the science-related information? God created science, after all."

Clark Wolf, ISU director of bioethics, said it's important to note that people on both sides of the issue want academic freedom. The key is determining "what is legitimate science," he said. Educators have a responsibility protect the rights of all students, Wolf said, and it's nearly impossible to teach intelligent design creationism outside a religious framework.

The Pennsylvania courts set a precedent when they concluded that intelligent design creationism is not science in the 2005 case Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District, Wolf said.

"The court said teachers who present intelligent design creationism as if it were science are not simply doing their students a disservice," Wolf said. "They are violating their rights."

Michael Clough, ISU associate professor of science education in the department of curriculum and instruction, said there are no "rival theories" that stand up to the evidence for evolution. He calls HF 183 "unfortunate and misguided," especially at a time when science education is increasingly important for solving issues of energy, climate and participating in the global information-age economy.

Clough said he believes evolution theory does not promote atheism and that there is "no conflict between science and religion."

"It's science's job to look for natural explanations," Cough said, and that science can't make claims about a supernatural being.

Evolution bill raises ire of UI professors


February 27, 2009

Legislation not expected to pass

Brian Morelli
Iowa City Press-Citizen

Professors across Iowa are rallying against a piece of state legislation that supports alternative teaching of evolution as a scientific view, such as creationism.

More than 220 people, including 56 University of Iowa professors, have signed an Iowa faculty petition against House File 183 -- The Evolution Academic Freedom Act, which was introduced this session by State Rep. Rod Roberts, R-Carroll.

The bill maintains that alternate theories on evolution fall under academic freedom, which should be protected for teachers and students that want to present such theories as scientific views in the classroom.

Roberts thinks people misunderstand the intent of the bill, he said.

"It's more about the freedom that an instructor and students can engage in without fear of criticism, censure or fear of losing one's job."

Opponents say the bill would allow teachers at all education levels to introduce religious views as science, and it would forbid teachers from discounting non-science based answers from students.

"The premise of the petition is that this is ridiculous. Let's stop it here," said John Logsdon, a UI associate professor of evolutionary molecular genetics who signed the petition.

"It is teaching something that is not science cloaked in an academic freedom issue," he said. "It's an underhanded ploy which is driven by this external force with a very clear agenda."

Opponents point to the Discovery Institute, a Seattle-based organization, as the supporter of the bill in Iowa and similar legislation in other states. Such laws have failed in Alabama, Florida and Oklahoma, among others, said James Demastes, an associate biology professor at the University of Northern Iowa, who has spearheaded the petition drive. But, it passed and was signed into law in Louisiana, he said.

This type of legislation feeds off a false premise that there is a controversy within the field of science about the validity of evolutionary theory, Demastes said. The legislation is just a mechanism to introduce religious or non-scientific doctrines into the science curriculum.

"Academic freedom bills not only encourage teachers and students to attack evolution, but strip state education departments and local school districts of the power to regulate this part of the science curriculum," Demastes wrote in an e-mail seeking signatures for the petition.

UI officials are not taking an institutional position on the bill, UI spokesman Steve Parrott said.

Keith Saunders, UI's liaison to the Iowa Legislature, said the bill is in the Iowa House's education sub-committee. He said he does not expect the bill to pass.

"From what I've heard, I don't anticipate it making it past the first funnel. We have concerns about the bill, but we are not expecting it to move," he said.

Hard to swallow


By Andrew Jack

Published: February 28 2009 00:18 | Last updated: February 28 2009 00:18

Taking the Medicine
By Druin Burch
Chatto & Windus £20, 336 pages
FT Bookshop price: £16

Suckers: How Alternative Medicine Makes Fools of Us All
By Rose Shapiro
Vintage £8.99, 304 pages
FT Bookshop price: £7.19

Trick or Treatment?: Alternative Medicine on Trial
By Simon Singh and Edzard Ernst
Bantam Press £16.99, 352 pages
FT Bookshop price: £13.59

Drug truths: Dispelling the Myths About Pharma R & D
By John LaMattina
Wiley £15.95, 152 pages

It's Great! Oops, No It Isn't: Why Clinical Research Can't Guarantee the Right Medical Answers
By Ronald R. Gauch Springer
Science+Business Media $40, 298 pages

Bad Science
By Ben Goldacre
Fourth Estate £12.99 352 pages
FT Bookshop price: £10.39

In 1920, the Regius Professor of Medicine at Oxford University offered the following advice for treating pneumonia: "To bleed at the very onset in robust, healthy individuals in whom the disease sets in with great intensity and high fever is good practice."

Blood-letting as a "cure" goes back 2,000 years, to the early history of medicine. By the 19th century, the practice was so common it fuelled a mini industry exporting leeches from France to England. Such false phlebotomy has been cited as contributing to the death of many unfortunate people, including figures as prominent as George Washington.

The author of these guidelines was Sir William Osler, a Canadian-born physician, researcher and lecturer often dubbed the father of modern medicine. His advice was included in his influential Principles and Practice of Modern Medicine, still in print in the current millennium.

This misplaced wisdom was one error among many great contributions to the advancement of healing. But it was indicative of a prevailing problem in the history of medicine: a doctor's reliance on his personal conviction based on anecdotal successes.

Over the centuries blood-letting was used to remedy a range of diseases – despite little evidence that it worked. Osler believed that it relieved strain on the heart. Yet this was just one of the many treatments used to "heal" the sick throughout history – by traditional healers, apothecaries, quacks and doctors alike.

We now live in an age where scientific testing of drugs is standard, and sophisticated interventions are supported by rigorous clinical trials. Yet, as a number of recent books highlight, many people across the world still seek unproven alternative therapies. So why, in this modern age, is there still mistrust of doctors – and why is the alternative health industry so resilient?

The advancement of science has changed how we live and die, but at the tense moment when we seek the help of doctors, scientific rationalism is often far from our minds. And though we have talked of "doctors" for a thousand years, the role of medical practitioners in society – and in our health – has changed substantially.

As Druin Burch, a British doctor and surgeon who flags up Osler's anachronistic advice, writes in Taking the Medicine: "Doctors, for most of human history, have killed their patients far more often than they have saved them."

Burch leads us through an array of shocking and surprising medical practices. In the 19th century, arsenic was a popular remedy because it induced an apparently "healthy" glow on the cheeks of patients – by destroying small blood vessels on the face. Preacher-turned-doctor David Livingstone treated sleeping sickness with the poison – many of his contemporaries used it for malaria, headaches and fevers.

While some salesmen of that period sold "patented" cure-alls for personal profit, many doctors had more lofty aims – but didn't realise the ill effect of their treatments, Burch notes. Livingstone, for instance, hastened the death of his own wife and daughter from malaria with a concoction that included quinine (rightly) but also rhubarb, calomel and cardamoms, which triggered diarrhoea.

Though there is a big scientific component in medicine, the treatment of disease is not merely a science. In the late 19th century, Burch argues, chemicals developed from dyes were used to treat disease but doctors and pharmaceutical companies alike were too complacent and ignored long-term risks. Faith in the personal success story was replaced by a "mistaken optimism in the power of chemists to correctly predict effects on the human body".

In 1898, for example, Bayer of Germany launched a new medicine to relieve the symptoms of respiratory illnesses, with little concern – and no willingness to test – for possible addiction. The drug was based on morphine; they branded it Heroin.

For Burch, the real hero of modern medicine is the randomised clinical trial, with its domination of rigorous testing over individual instincts. He singles out Archie Cochrane, the extraordinary polyglot doctor who signed up to fight fascism in the Spanish civil war, survived a massacre in Crete during the second world war and berated his callous German captors as he treated fellow prisoners of war for tuberculosis. His studies from the 1940s on the health of the population of a small area in Wales pioneered systematic research trials.

Burch covers extensive ground, although at times he culls quotes and drops in half-formed anecdotes like a college medical student cramming for an exam; at others, he gets too involved in individual circuitous stories at the expense of the broader message.

His thesis is a little overdone. Human life expectancy has certainly risen in line with our growing understanding of health and economic development, with better sanitation and improved nutrition. But Burch overstates the collective harm that doctors have done. For centuries they administered plant extracts such as aspirin for headaches, for example, and artemisinin for malaria – which are now part of the modern, western pharmacopoeia.

Burch writes that Cochrane's innovative clinical trials helped to pave the way for modern evidence-based medicine, at a time when scientific advances in medical understanding and drug development were helping to undermine belief in alternative therapies in the west.

If we believe in scientific testing, however, how do we explain medicine's most elusive cure: the placebo effect? Studies consistently find that the health of about 20 per cent of people who are given inert drugs in clinical trials improve relative to those given no treatment at all. The body really does have natural healing powers, though not everyone reacts in the same way – and these powers can't simply be employed on demand.

Where there is a gap in the scientific explanation and in practitioner credibility, there will always be those who rush to fill that space. Rose Shapiro takes on the practitioners of that niche industry in her highly readable Suckers. The limitations of modern medicine, she argues, are no excuse for a romantic rejection of science. Yet over the last 50 years, fringe treatments have made a disturbing return in the west.

Why is this so? Shapiro argues that the revival of alternative practitioners coincides with the questioning of authority of the youth culture of the 1960s. Hippie-inspired "holism" combined with a drive for individual responsibility in health promotion on the part of the government and others, and a generalised hunger for "extreme wellness".

In addition, the pharmaceutical industry's public reputation has suffered, whether from selective clinical trials, excessive marketing or safety scandals – including the effects of Thalidomide in the 1950s and Vioxx this decade. Rationalism, in other words, was undermined from within the industry as well as from without.

Shapiro, a popular science writer, reaches similar conclusions to those of academics Simon Singh and Edzard Ernst in their volume on the subject, Trick or Treatment? They catalogue an extraordinary array of unproven but often highly profitable alternative remedies that exploit faith in the natural world and scepticism about doctors, from colonic irrigation and ear candling to homeopathy and Bach flower remedies. Such practices are part of a global alternative medicine industry generating £40bn a year.

A significant minority persists in seeking unproven "natural" and "traditional" remedies that may seem harmless. Yet, as Singh and Ernst argue, they also take lives: through the directly negative effects of "treatments"; by interaction and intervention with drugs that would otherwise work; or by neglect of proven treatments, which may prolong pain and reduce the likelihood of survival of cancer or Aids patients.

Rather than bringing in tougher legislation that would impose scientific studies to back the claims for alternative healthcare, western governments allow "traditional" practices to continue. In 2005, the British government even provided nearly £1m, via the Prince of Wales's "Foundation for Integrated Health", to create the Complementary and Natural Healthcare Council, a self-regulatory body for alternative therapists.

Those outside the mainstream medical and pharmaceutical professions are often armed with little more than a dubious mixture of charisma and degrees earned via correspondence courses. Yet they receive far less regulatory scrutiny than those within industry, as described by John LaMattina, former head of research and development at pharmaceuticals company Pfizer.

In Drug Truths, LaMattina seeks to defend his peers from continued scepticism and suspicion. Drug manufacturers are frequently singled out as operating ruthlessly to maximise profits. Yet they employ thousands of dedicated scientists and spend billions of dollars a year on development and clinical trials.

His defence of the industry is somewhat dry and technical, but provides a response to the critics of industry. He addresses a common perception that companies are less interested in innovation than in "me-too" drugs that are similar to those already launched by rivals. Such drugs are often developed in parallel, he says, and provide significant incremental benefits.

LaMattina rejects the idea that the pharma industry contributes little to the body of scientific knowledge compared to academia; that it invents diseases or produces drugs that are less safe than traditional medicines. His book also contains a welcome note of optimism – though it takes a long time to translate scientific discoveries into new drugs, new launches in the years ahead will extend lives further, he says.

This is not a field that is short on opinion. The views in Drug Truths are nuanced by Ronald Gauch, a US academic, in It's Great! Oops, No It Isn't: Why Clinical Research Can't Guarantee the Right Medical Answers. Gauch's title promises a more humorous read than he delivers, but walks the resilient reader through some failings of clinical trials. He takes us from the Dalkon contraceptive shield, unfairly accused by researchers in the 1970s of causing pelvic infections, to hormone replacement therapy for the menopause, which has been significantly discredited in recent years after more detailed studies showed its link to breast cancer.

In a more lively way, Ben Goldacre, Guardian columnist and scourge of "Bad science" in alternative medicine and mainstream pharmaceuticals alike, makes the case for continued scepticism in all spheres. He highlights biases in what companies choose to study, argues that they sometimes suppress negative results and may even adopt a "try every button on the computer" technique to fit the data to the thesis.

The hope must be that there is more independent funding to support scientific data on pharmaceuticals' relatively efficacy and side-effects; greater collaboration and transparency between researchers developing new medicines; and a broader public debate and engagement in the challenges of the scientific method, and of the relative risks and benefits of drugs.

In the meantime, as Sir William Osler put it, we will have to make do with an unhappy muddle: "New remedies, like new servants, seem always to do well at first," he said. "But, with the one as with the other, it takes time before the good and bad qualities can be discovered."

Andrew Jack is the FT's pharmaceuticals correspondent

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2009

Friday, February 27, 2009

Evolution education update: February 27, 2009

The thousandth signatory to NCSE's Project Steve arrived -- just in time for the Darwin anniversary celebrations! Plus NCSE is making a sample chapter from the second edition of Eugenie C. Scott's acclaimed Evolution vs. Creationism available. And a journal is calling for papers for a special issue on the teaching of evolution in a university setting.


With the addition of Steve #1000 on September 5, 2008, NCSE's Project Steve attained the kilosteve mark. A tongue-in-cheek parody of the long-standing creationist tradition of amassing lists of "scientists who doubt evolution" or "scientists who dissent from Darwinism," Project Steve mocks such lists by restricting its signatories to scientists whose first name is Steve. (Cognates are also accepted, such as Stephanie, Esteban, Istvan, Stefano, or even Tapani -- the Finnish equivalent.) About 1% of the United States population possesses such a first name, so each signatory represents about 100 potential signatories. ("Steve" was selected in honor of the late Stephen Jay Gould, a Supporter of NCSE and a dauntless defender of evolution education.)

Steve #1000 was announced at the Improbable Research press conference and crowned at the Improbable Research show, both held on February 13, 2008, as part of the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. NCSE's executive director Eugenie C. Scott and Steve Mirsky, long-time writer, columnist, and podcaster for Scientific American presented a commemorative plaque to -- of all people -- Steven P. Darwin, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and director of the herbarium at Tulane University. In a February 14, 2009, press release, Darwin commented, "This is the first time that being a Darwin - or a Steve - has paid off!" Videos of the press conference and the award ceremony, and a Scientific American podcast, are available on-line.

The fact that Steve #1000 hails from Louisiana is particularly ironic, since the state recently enacted a law that threatens to open the door for creationism and scientifically unwarranted critiques of evolution to be taught in public school science classes. When a policy implementing the law was drafted, a provision that prohibited the use of materials that teach creationism in the public schools was deleted. Recently, the Society of Integrative and Comparative Biology announced that, due to the antievolution law, it would not hold its 2011 conference in New Orleans; a spokesperson for the New Orleans Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau told the weekly New Orleans City Business (February 23, 2009) that the city would lose about $2.7 million as a result of SICB's decision.

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

Highlights from the history of Project Steve include the original press release, Glenn Branch and Skip Evans's description of the project for Geotimes, the announcement that Steven W. Hawking was Steve #300, the announcement (on St. Stephen's Day!) of Steve #400, and the announcements of Steves #600, #700, #800, and #900. And, of course, Project Steve proved to be scientifically fruitful in its own right. "The Morphology of Steve," by Eugenie C. Scott, Glenn Branch, Nick Matzke, and several hundred Steves, appeared in the prestigious Annals of Improbable Research; the paper provided "the first scientific analysis of the sex, geographic location, and body size of scientists named Steve."

Currently, there are 1046 signatories to Project Steve, including 100% of eligible Nobel laureates (Steven Weinberg and Steven Chu), 100% of eligible members of President Obama's Cabinet (Steven Chu, the Secretary of Energy), at least ten members of the National Academy of Sciences, the authors of widely used textbooks such as Molecular Biology of the Gene, Psychology: An Evolutionary Approach, and Introduction to Organic Geochemistry, and the authors of popular science books such as A Brief History of Time, Why We Age, and Darwin's Ghost. When last surveyed in February 2006, 54% of the signatories work in the biological sciences proper; 61% work in related fields in the life sciences.

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

For the 2009 press release, visit:

For the videos and podcast, visit:

For NCSE's previous coverage of events in Louisiana, visit:

For the story in New Orleans City Business, visit:

For the 2003 press release, visit:

For Branch and Evans's report in Geotimes, visit:

And for "The Morphology of Steve" (PDF), visit:


NCSE's executive director Eugenie C. Scott's book Evolution vs. Creationism is now available in a second edition, updated to include the seminal case Kitzmiller v. Dover -- in which a federal court found that it was unconstitutional to teach "intelligent design" creationism in the public schools -- as well as a new chapter on public opinion and media coverage and a new foreword by Judge John E. Jones III, who presided over the Kitzmiller trial.

The first edition of the book was praised by reviewers in The New York Times Book Review, Science Education, Choice (which named it a 2005 Outstanding Academic Title), the Journal of the History of Biology, Science Books & Films, Perspectives in Science and Christian Faith, Theology and Science, the Toronto Globe & Mail, and even the Institute for Creation Research's Back to Genesis.

Want to see for yourself? Now's your chance. For a limited time, we've posted a sample chapter -- chapter 1, on "Science: Truth without Certainty" from the book. It's yours to download, read, print out, and share with others. See for yourself why the reviewer for NSTA Recommends concluded, "Evolution vs. Creationism would be an excellent resource for any science teacher, especially those who teach biology or the nature of science."

For the sample chapter (PDF), visit:

For further information about Evolution vs. Creationism, visit:


The Journal of Effective Teaching, a peer-reviewed electronic journal devoted to the discussion of teaching excellence in colleges and universities, is calling for papers for a special issue on the teaching of evolution in a university setting. Topics may include Darwinism in the history and philosophy of science, politics, and religion; evolution and the nature of science; barriers in the understanding of evolution; strategies for teaching controversial issues related to evolution and/or Darwinism; educational research in the teaching of evolution; challenging preconceptions in the classroom, and engaging students who have strong religious views in scientific investigations as part of a liberal arts degree. Articles will be accepted until May 1, 2009.

For the call for papers (PDF), visit:

For information about the Journal of Effective Teaching, visit:

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


Glenn Branch
Deputy Director
National Center for Science Education, Inc.
420 40th Street, Suite 2
Oakland, CA 94609-2509
510-601-7203 x310
fax: 510-601-7204

Not in Our Classrooms: Why Intelligent Design Is Wrong for Our Schools

Eugenie C. Scott's Evolution vs. Creationism

NCSE's work is supported by its members. Join today!


Metroplex Institute of Origin Science

Dr. Patricia Nason (ICR/ Dallas, TX)

"Science Education for a Lost Generation"

In an age when belief in biological evolution and humanism have become the politically correct answers to life's issues, Christian parents, science teachers, Sunday School teachers, and pastors are looking for ways to get Christians to commit to a biblical worldview. Surveys and research show that our young people are falling away from Christianity. Only 15% of Christian kids who go to public school and 6% who are in Christian schools.

The TRUTH that He owns us because He created us and then bought us with His son's blood are not important enough to make God's value system and His Word the absolute truth in their lives. How is our educational system, especially in the sciences, duping our kids? Why is belief in Creation important? What does it mean to be a committed Christian and what teaching 'strategies' should we use to get to the heart of the individual believer?

Dr.. Patti Nason, Associate Professor and Chairman of the Department of Science Education of the Institute for Creation Research Graduate School, will address these issues and make suggestions to help prepare future generations to seek the truth. Come get educated and equipped!!

Dr. Pepper Starcenter
12700 N. Stemmons Fwy
Farmers Branch, TX

Tuesday, March, 3rd, 7:30 PM