NTS LogoSkeptical News for 19 June 2009

Archive of previous NTS Skeptical News listings

Friday, June 19, 2009

Evolution education update: June 19, 2009

NCSE staff have been busy recently, delivering a talk at the Evolution 2009 conference, writing for the Washington Post, and giving interviews on two radio programs. Meanwhile, a creationist teacher facing dismissal has sued his school district.


NCSE's executive director Eugenie C. Scott spoke at the Evolution 2009 conference on June 12, 2009, and video of her lecture -- "The Public Understanding of Evolution and the KISS Principle" -- is now available on-line in RealPlayer format. At the conference, Scott was presented with the first Stephen Jay Gould Prize, awarded annually by the Society for the Study of Evolution "to recognize individuals whose sustained and exemplary efforts have advanced public understanding of evolutionary science and its importance in biology, education, and everyday life in the spirit of Stephen Jay Gould." According to the citation, "As the executive director of the National Center for Science Education she has been in the forefront of battles to ensure that public education clearly distinguishes science from non-science and that the principles of evolution are taught in all biology courses."

For the video, visit:

For information about the conference, visit:

For the citation, visit:


NCSE's Faith Project Director Peter M. J. Hess contributed a guest column, entitled "West of Eden," to the Washington Post's on-line "On Faith" feature (June 16, 2009). "Too often, debates over the public perception of evolution are dominated by the fringes, by fundamentalist Christians and others who reject basic science due to their literal reading of the Bible and by ardent atheists who reject religion because they've embraced metaphysical naturalism -- that nature is all that exists," Hess writes. "Evolution can certainly be compatible with religious faith. Because the evidence for evolution is so overwhelming, we must consider it to be a truth about the natural world -- the world which we as people of faith believe was created by God, and the world made understandable by the reason and natural senses given to us by God. Denying science is a profoundly unsound theological position."

For Hess's column, visit:


NCSE's executive director Eugenie C. Scott was a guest on two radio programs recently, and both shows are available on-line. On June 4, 2009, she appeared on the BBC 4's Leading Edge to discuss attempts to undermine the teaching of evolution in the public schools. Other guests were Denis Alexander, Director of the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion, based at St. Edmund's College, Cambridge University, and Gillian Beer, the author of Darwin's Plots: Evolutionary Narrative in Darwin, George Eliot and Nineteenth-Century Fiction (second edition; Cambridge University Press, 2000). The thirty-minute-long show is available in RealPlayer format. Also on June 4, 2009, she was a guest on Declaring Independence, a weekly political talk show on Public Reality Radio, WPRR 1680-AM in Grand Rapids, Michigan; the show is hosted by NCSE member Ed Brayton (who also blogs at Dispatches from the Culture Wars, hosted by ScienceBlogs). Their free-ranging and free-wheeling discussion begins at 34:34 into the hour-long show, available in mp3 format.

For the Leading Edge show, visit:

For the Declaring Independence show, visit:


"John Freshwater, an eighth-grade science teacher facing dismissal for allegedly preaching in the classroom, is suing the Mount Vernon City School District, saying it violated his constitutional and civil rights," the Columbus Dispatch (June 11, 2009) reported. Freshwater was himself sued in federal court in June 2008 for allegedly inappropriately bringing his religion into school -- including by posting posters with the Ten Commandments and Bible verses in his classroom, branding crosses into the arms of his students with a high-voltage electrical device, and teaching creationism. The Mount Vernon City School District Board of Education quickly voted to begin proceedings to terminate his employment with the district, and administrative hearings have been proceeding intermittently since October 2008. (Detailed reports on the hearings by Richard B. Hoppe are available on The Panda's Thumb blog.)

In his lawsuit, Freshwater names as defendants the Board, two individual Board members and four other district administrators, a investigative firm and two of its employees commissioned by the district to investigate his teaching, and up to eight unknown (even to him) "employees, agents or others associated" with the Board who may have "conducted or facilitated" actions against him. The suit contains sixteen counts, including religious discrimination, defamation, conspiracy and breach of contract, and seeks $500,000 in compensatory damages and $500,000 in punitive damages. Documents associated with the case, Freshwater v. Mount Vernon City School District Board of Education et al., are available on the "Creationism and the Law" section of NCSE's website, as are documents associated with the suit against Freshwater, Doe et al. v. Mount Vernon City School District Board of Education et al.

For the Dispatch's story, visit:

For Hoppe's coverage at The Panda's Thumb blog, visit:

For the legal documents associated with the cases, visit:

And for NCSE's previous coverage of events in Ohio, visit:

Thanks for reading! And don't forget to visit NCSE's website -- http://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

Eugenie C. Scott's Evolution vs. Creationism -- now in its second edition!

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

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

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Steve Goble's It's Debatable: Mount Vernon teacher doesn't have much of a case


By STEVE GOBLE • News Journal • June 14, 2009

The saga of Mount Vernon teacher John Freshwater continues, this time to the tune of $1 million.

That's a really expensive tune, so school districts across the country will be watching closely.

Freshwater is fighting to keep his job after several allegations, including that he taught his religious views to students rather than teaching them science. Other accusations were that he defied an order to remove his personal Bible from the top of his classroom desk and that he used a classroom device to burn the image of a cross onto a student's arm.

The teacher was fired, and is fighting the school board's move in ongoing hearings. The freshest wrinkle is the lawsuit he filed against the district last week, contending that his free speech rights were violated.

Does he have a case? Not much of one.

Freshwater's supporters focus on the desktop Bible, because that's the strongest card in their hand. If this case were about nothing but the Bible, Freshwater would deserve to win. Eighth-graders certainly are old enough to figure out some of their teachers are Christian. Many probably have seen their teacher at church. The mere presence of the Bible on the desk does not violate church-state separation.

Freshwater contends other teachers kept Bibles on their desks without raising eyebrows from the administration. That may be so, but it undermines his contention that he's the victim of persecution because of his religion; apparently, his firing really was about what he was teaching, and not about an administration that wanted to persecute a Christian.

Once discussion moves away from the Bible, Freshwater's case wobbles like a Weeble -- and then falls down. Freshwater is accused of teaching non-scientific, religion-fueled creationism instead of science. On this score, the teacher's lawsuit should fail.

Basically, he is accused of undermining legitimate science -- evolution theory -- and pressing make-believe "science" based on Scripture.

Freshwater's lawyers may press an "academic freedom" argument, insisting teachers must be able to discuss a wide range of ideas in order to do their jobs. The argument sounds impressive, loaded with yummy fair-play goodness and seems like a common-sense idea -- until you consider that those who support teaching creationism in public schools want the academic freedom to teach the equivalent of five plus five equals nineteen.

If there actually was a scientific case to be made for creationism, the academic freedom argument would work. But there isn't such a case, and so the academic freedom argument fails.

Here's an academic freedom argument that does make sense: Proponents of creationism and intelligent design have the academic freedom to assemble a legitimate scientific case. They've always had that freedom, and haven't made a case yet, but they're welcome to try.

The lawsuit -- and its hefty $1 million asking price -- could have an impact that goes well beyond Mount Vernon and Ohio. Superintendents elsewhere have to contend with teachers who think Genesis is a science textbook, too, and so they will be watching closely.

The case also echoes the Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District decision from 2005 -- but not in a way that favors Freshwater. In that case, a school district required presentation of intelligent design in the curriculum as an alternative to evolution as an explanation of life's origin (although evolution theory doesn't even try to explain life's origin ... but never mind that for now).

The plaintiffs successfully argued that intelligent design is a form of creationism, and that the school board policy was thus unconstitutional. The intelligent design and creationism proponents had their chance to make a scientific case, and they flopped.

Freshwater's insistence that his free speech and religion rights are violated just because he doesn't get to teach his religious views in a public school -- supported with public funds -- deserves to flop, too. He has a right to believe whatever he wants and preach whatever he wants on his own time. On the public's time, and with the public's pay, he is supposed to teach science.

The courts now have another chance to make that perfectly clear.

Steve Goble is a copy editor and page designer for the News Journal. Visit his blog on our Web site. E-mail him at sgoble@ nncogannett.com.

Evolution education update: June 12, 2009

A new resource on NCSE's website provides the details on seventeen key legal cases in the creationism/evolution controversy. A new issue of Evolution: Education and Outreach is available. And the text of Science's recent interview of Eugenie C. Scott is now posted in NCSE's website.


Looking for the legal skinny on the court cases that shaped the landscape of the creationism/evolution controversy? NCSE's new Creationism and the Law resource provides the details on seventeen key cases, from Scopes to Selman, that made a difference. Simply click on the name of a case to get a thorough summary; a list of source documents (typically PDFs, arranged in chronological order); and to relevant NCSE news stories, timelines, and presentations; and a selection of links to third-party sources. This new NCSE resource is free and aimed at journalists, lawyers, school administrators, school boards, and anyone interested in the legal history of evolution, creationism, and public school science education.

For "Creationism and the Law," visit:


The latest issue of Evolution: Education and Outreach -- the new journal aspiring to promote accurate understanding and comprehensive teaching of evolutionary theory for a wide audience -- is now available on-line. Taking transitional forms as its theme, the issue positively teems with exciting paleontology. Among the authors are Jennifer A. Clack writing on "The Fish-Tetrapod Transition: New Fossils and Interpretations," Luis M. Chiappe writing on "Downsized Dinosaurs: The Evolutionary Transition to Modern Birds," Kenneth D. Angielczyk writing on "Dimetrodon Is Not a Dinosaur: Using Tree Thinking to Understand the Ancient Relatives of Mammals and their Evolution," J. G. M. Thewissen, Lisa Noelle Cooper, John C. George, and Sunil Bajpai writing on "From Land to Water: the Origin of Whales, Dolphins, and Porpoises," and Donald R. Prothero writing on "Evolutionary Transitions in the Fossil Record of Terrestrial Hoofed Mammals."

Also included is the latest installment of NCSE's regular column for Evolution: Education and Outreach, Overcoming Obstacles to Evolution Education. In "Transforming Our Thinking about Transitional Forms," NCSE's Education Project Director Louise S. Mead explains, "A common misconception of evolutionary biology is that it involves a search for 'missing links' in the history of life. Relying on this misconception, antievolutionists present the supposed absence of transitional forms from the fossil record as evidence against evolution. Students of biology need to understand that evolution is a branching process, paleontologists do not expect to find 'missing links,' and evolutionary research uses independent lines of evidence to test hypotheses and make conclusions about the history of life. Teachers can facilitate such learning by incorporating cladistics and tree-thinking into the curriculum and using evograms to focus on important evolutionary transitions."

For the latest issue of Evolution: Education and Outreach, visit:

For Mead's article, visit:


Last week's Evolution Education Update summarized Science's interview with NCSE's executive director Eugenie C. Scott. Now, with the kind permission of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the complete text of the interview is available on NCSE's website.

For the interview, visit:

Thanks for reading! And don't forget to visit NCSE's website -- http://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

Eugenie C. Scott's Evolution vs. Creationism -- now in its second edition!

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

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

Series to discuss evolution, creation with college students


By ANN WALLACE • The Leaf-Chronicle • June 13, 2009

A Creation 101 series will be presented at First Assembly of God on Fort Campbell Boulevard starting Wednesday.

"Evolution and creation are both religions — you have to have faith to believe either one of them," said Jason Groppel, a local teacher and member at First Assembly.

He and his wife, Angela, will serve as facilitators for the series for high school and college students.

The series begins Wednesday, and continues every Wednesday thereafter through Aug. 12. Creation 101 is based on a comprehensive DVD seminar from Creation Science Evangelism.

Groppel insists the series is not "dogmatic or doctrine-specific, and the classes most definitely are not designed to be debates."

"Studies show that 75 percent of kids raised in Christian homes lose their faith their first year of college. That is why we are gearing the class toward high school and college-age students," he said. "But it is open to anyone truly interested in the topic.

"We just hope to give kids the tools they need to think for themselves and not just accept what they are taught as factual in school science classrooms," Groppel said.

Ann Wallace covers education and religion. She can be reached at 220-1478 or by e-mail at annwallace@theleafchronicle.com.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Two anti-evolution science ed bills die in Texas


June 2, 9:28 AM

Two anti-evolution bills died in Texas yesterday when the Texas legislature adjourned. A major triumph was the death of House Bill 2800 that would have made it possible for the Institute for Creation Research to award master's degrees in science by exempting them from regulations governing degree-granting institutions. (ICR is currently suing for the right.)

The second bill, House Bill 4224, was intended to restore the "strengths and weaknesses" language to Texas education standards. Of course, the death of this bill is a triumph, but, who can forget what happened in Texas earlier this year? The board included language that would still allow creationists to get the grimy little paws on science taught in Texas schools.

The man who has chaired the Texas board of Education, Don McLeroy, through this latest series of nonsense, fortunately, is being ousted. As soon as Texas governor Rick Perry appoints a replacement for him, he will lose his chair position. Unfortunately, he will still be a board member.

Author: Trina Hoaks
Trina Hoaks is a National Examiner. You can see Trina's articles on Trina's Home Page.

Darwin refuted and disputed at John Birch Society meeting


By Coley Michalik
Tue Jun 02, 2009, 05:26 PM EDT

West Roxbury - Members of the John Birch Society believe in protecting the U.S. Constitution from what they consider to be wavering while maintaining its integrity.

"Less government, more responsibility, and with God's help, a better world" is the motto of the society that hosted author James Perloff at the West Roxbury Branch Library on Saturday afternoon.

The gathering was in response to a recent celebration of Charles Darwin and his theory of evolution in order to see the opposite side of the spectrum, which is creationism — a banned teaching in public school systems nationwide.

Perloff, who lives in Burlington, was brought in to elaborate on his findings against Darwin's theory of evolution. He has written two books on the subject: "Tornado in a Junkyard" and "The Case against Darwin."

The event was held in front of a small gathering and was kicked off with a prayer along with the Pledge of Allegiance led by Harold Shurtleff of West Roxbury, regional field director for the John Birch Society.

Perloff delivered his three-part PowerPoint rebuttal of Darwin's theory of evolution in order to "underscore what people don't know" and explain how many people have been persuaded to believe Darwin's theory as fact while casting off creationism totally.

Perloff tried to draw parallels throughout history, attempting to connect individuals such as Andrew Carnegie, Karl Marx, Josef Stalin and Adolph Hitler with the teachings and rationales of Charles Darwin. He also told of his own life's inner conflict, saying he was briefly turned into an atheist at a young age due to Darwin's theory.

Perloff went on to say, "Survival of the fittest does not explain arrival of the fittest," and that, "[the theory of] evolution is just speculation on the past and should not been seen as scientific fact."

In the crowd was Birch Society member John Coveney of Weymouth, who said, "It was a great presentation. I've read his books and find [Perloff] informative."

Coveney, talking about teaching creationism versus the theory of evolution in public schools, said, "Teach both evolution and creationism. Let them make up their own minds. It's a free country, after all."

Kentucky based Creation Museum celebrates second anniversary


June 2, 5:25 AM The controversial Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky marked its second anniversary this past week. Though the second year brought in fewer viewers than its first year, the museum staff remains undaunted by the dip in numbers. Like most extra-curricular venues across the country, sales were expected to be down for 2008 but hopes are high that 2009 will be an even better year.

The 70,000 square foot museum has had protests from Christians and non-Christians alike. With a literal interpretation of the Bible as its theme, the museum has been controversial since before it opened two years ago.

Ken Ham, founder and President of the museum believes he is on a mission of sorts. "We enter our third year excited about the growing opportunities the museum provides for reaching people with the creation gospel message. We believe God is using us to make a difference in our post-Christian culture, and we will continue to do everything we can to help believers defend the Word of God, from the very first verse."

The museum's displays take you on a journey of creation via a literal translation of the Bible that many refer to as Young Earth Creationism. Young Earth creationism is the belief that the Heavens, Earth, and life on Earth were created by direct acts of God sometime between 6,000 and 10,000 years ago, taking the Hebrew text of Genesis as a literal account.

Many Christians who don't agree with Young Earth Creationism and prefer the viewpoint of Old Earth Creationism feel that the Old is more in line with scientific research. Most who hold to a different belief than the founders of the museum do seem to ignore the existence of the Creation museum based in Kentucky. However, the museum is still bombarded with letters and blogging woes as anti-Christian messages are sent out into cyberspace denouncing the validity and purpose of the Creation Museum. Still, the museum has had over 700,000 guests in the first two years and is proud to be going strong despite the current economy.

Click here to check out the Creation Museum: http://creationmuseum.org/

More information and sources:

Christianpost.com http://tinyurl.com/ktlv9u

What's wrong with the new Texas standards


June 2nd, 2009

Writing in The Earth Scientist, the journal of the National Earth Science Teachers Association, NCSE's Steven Newton explains (PDF, pp. 30-33) in detail what's wrong with the new state science standards adopted in Texas in March 2009, focusing on the Earth and Space Science standards in particular. At the behest of the creationist faction on the state board of education, references to the specific age of the universe, common descent, and evolution were removed, and language that misleadingly suggests that established scientific results are in doubt was introduced. Newton concludes, "Although the original ESS standards were based on strong science and outlined an excellent course in earth sciences, a number of creationist and anti-science amendments have weakened the ESS standards and disrespected the hard work and expertise of the writing team. The standards are finalized and in place, bad amendments and all. The struggle for science education in Texas now shifts to the adoption of textbooks in 2011, when these deeply-flawed amendments may be used to force a creationist agenda into Texas science classrooms."

The science of Noah's Ark


Creation society considers the biblical flood
Originally published June 06, 2009

By Ron Cassie
News-Post Staff

Perhaps the question should be: Does it matter to a Christian's salvation whether the story of Noah's Ark is literally true -- or a fable to impart a larger truth?

But that is not the mission of the Frederick Creation Society.

"We think that the Bible is the truthful revelation of the word of God Almighty," said Dr. Robert Scovner, one of the group's founders and a "semi-retired" family practitioner. "Metaphorically, it (the story of Noah's Ark) may be useful, but it is presented as history and we believe it is accurate."

With that in mind, Charles Antilla, of the Kentucky-based Christian ministry Answers in Genesis, will present the half-hour DVD "Flood Geology" at the next meeting of the Frederick Creation Society on Tuesday.

The debate is not science versus religion, but "science versus science," Scovner said.

"We feel the evolution explanation is completely wrong, it just fails," he said. "Human life is incomprehensible in its design and complexity. And we know that from our own experience, when we see something -- a new tool or technology, for example -- with great design and obvious brilliance that it comes from an intelligent designer. The most fantastic designs and intricacies found can only come from an intelligent designer at work."

The Frederick Creation Society is a nondenominational organization that works to stimulate discussions on the scientific and Biblical grounds of creation science. Meeting topics include Biblical and spiritual aspects of a creation viewpoint and scientific evidence to support creation.

"Evolution is a false hypothesis that has established an almost total reign over our schools and media," the organization's website states.

The society meets on the second Tuesday of each month at 7:30 p.m. at the Frederick Adventist School, with which it is not affiliated.

The steering committee includes Scovner; Otto Berg, an astrophysicist who worked at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt; Dr. Per Houmann, a Hagerstown dentist; and Charmaine Richman, Ph.D., a scientific administrator at the National Cancer Institute.

The society has brought in a number of a high-profile scientists who support creationism since the Frederick group re-formed about a decade ago, Scovner said. Meetings, open to the public, generally attract between 15 and 20 people -- most believers, some not, he said.

Seeing the flood

"Flood Geology" was produced through the Creation Museum, an outreach of Answers in Genesis.

The $27 million museum has drawn international attention and its organizers said it has attracted more than 650,000 visitors since its opening in Petersburg, Ky., in 2007.

Antilla and his wife, Wendye, both certified video conference coordinators with the museum, will stay for a discussion Tuesday evening after the DVD is shown.

"Flood Geology" is not about a search for Noah's Ark on Mount Ararat. It is, Antilla said, a depiction of what the biblical flood might have looked like "as the fountains of the deep opened and the weather changed dramatically."

The DVD includes a clip of events that followed the 1980 eruption of Mount. St. Helens, Antilla said, an event that mimicked "much of what could have happened in the 'Great Flood,' but in a smaller scale."

The DVD makes the case for a great flood using the geology of rock layers, fossilization and how coal is formed.

It tackles "rapid speciation" -- or "how we got so many species in such a relatively short time after the flood of Noah," Antilla wrote in an e-mail. Also up for discussion is the wide distribution of plants and animals, and what caused the Ice Age.

A graduate of the University of Maryland, with a Bachelor of Science degree in business and management, Antilla works for Volvo Logistics in Hagerstown. He and his wife, a graduate of the University of Mississippi, attend Tri-State Fellowship, an Evangelical Free Church, in Hagerstown.

"While I am not a scientist, I have always been interested in it," he said. "I have studied the related subject matter for some years. I believe that I can give a reasoned defense of the authority of the Bible from the very first verse if given the opportunity."

The Bible is a history book of the universe, Antilla said. "It isn't a science book, but where it touches upon history, anthropology, astronomy, geology, biology, etc., it can be demonstrated that operational science confirms that the Bible is true."

While it can't be proven, Antilla said, "the Bible does provide reasons why things are the way they are and how things got to be the way they are.

"How we think about the first 11 chapters of Genesis affects our thinking in many ways. Ultimately, it determines our worldview."

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Creation Museum's attendance exceeds expectations


June 10, 2009

Attendance of 720,000 exceeds expectations

PETERSBURG, Ky. -- A school bus hissed to a stop near a giant concrete dinosaur perched outside the Creation Museum, a $27 million, 70,000-square-foot natural history museum-meets-Biblical theme park.

Three dozen middle school students tumbled out the doors, stretching after the 113-mile drive from Westside Christian School in Indianapolis for a field trip to augment their science lessons.

Inside, the students learned from displays that, contrary to mainstream textbooks, science supports the Bible's accounts of the Earth's creation in six days; that the Grand Canyon was created suddenly in Noah's flood; that dinosaurs and humans lived together; and that animal poison did not exist before Adam's original sin.

"Creation makes more sense -- what's here just confirms it," said seventh-grader Nick Johnson of Westside Christian.

Two years after its controversial opening, the Creation Museum has drawn 720,000 visitors, far more than the 250,000 annually organizers predicted. It brought in $7 million in receipts last fiscal year, with organizers saying it has had an economic impact of more than $20 million.

Along the way, it has become a popular science field trip destination for Christian schools, religious and home-school groups and public-school clubs. Students represent many of the museum's group visitors, which make up roughly 20 percent to 30 percent of overall attendance, officials said.

Several public schools have made the trip, museum officials said, declining to identify them. Some public-school religious clubs from as far as New Jersey have made the trip to a destination that continues to draw international media attention, partly because of the ongoing commemoration of Charles Darwin's 200th birthday.

Now, the museum is planning next year to expand its reach to young people, including a "Knee High Museum" of interactive displays and activities for young people. And it's increasing its reach by sending representatives to meet with teachers at religious schools and planning exhibits to counter Darwin's theory.

"Children should be exposed to alterative views," said Mark Looy, a museum co-creator. "Where do you go to get an opposing view? To the Creation Museum."

Fear of pseudo-science

Scientists and secular educators fear those students are being led astray by pseudo-science that they say distorts accepted scientific findings, including a fossil record that shows life becoming progressively complex over billions of years. They also argue it fosters a distrust of science.

"The poor students who go there thinking they will learn some science are done a great disservice," said museum critic Lawrence Krauss, a physicist who directs the Origins Initiative at Arizona State University.

The National Center for Science Education asserts that "students who accept this material as scientifically valid are unlikely to succeed in science courses at the college level."

Yet religious schools are flocking to the museum, including schools from Louisville that view it as a valuable educational resource.

"It really helped supplement our curriculum" and "shed a lot of light" on earth sciences, said Dan Delaney, principal of Louisville's Northside Christian School, who objects to evolution "propaganda" in museums and textbooks.

That opinion is shared by Ann Shively, high school principal at Evangel Christian in Louisville. Shively said her school's visit last year confirmed "there's just too much fact and research that goes to prove that there's an intelligent design behind the universe."

The museum, which includes a digital planetarium, 150 exhibits and an effects theater, is the work of Answers in Genesis, a conservative religious group with a $24 million annual budget that is part of the "young Earth" creationist movement.

They believe that the Bible's book of Genesis literally depicts how the world was formed in six days.

As a result, they say that dinosaurs must have co-existed with humans and that the story of the flood and the ark are true.

Creator Ken Ham, who started the ministry in his native Australia and raised money to build the museum, says he uses "the same science" as evolutionists, but interprets it differently.

Displays assert that genetics and archaeology had "confirmed" various Biblical stories and that complex human organs couldn't have evolved from simpler forms.

"Science tries to discredit God," said Della Davidson, a parent accompanying Westside's field trip with her 12-year-old daughter, Kyla. The museum "shows how God can discredit science."

Kentucky Department of Education spokeswoman Lisa Gross said nothing in state law would bar public schools from visiting, if it were part of "a lesson" on "how some perceived the world's beginnings."

Kentucky requirements

Kentucky does not require the teaching of evolution or creationism (or even science at all) in private schools. And public-school science teachers aren't prohibited from mentioning creationism, but lessons often include concepts behind evolution, Gross said.

Just last weekend, a New Jersey public-school history teacher who leads a religious club at Kearny High School took a bus full of students for a visit.

The teacher, David Paszkiewicz, gained national attention in 2006 for "telling students that dinosaurs were on Noah's ark -- things you shouldn't be saying as a public-school teacher," said Matt LaClair, a former student and member of the Ohio-based Secular Student Alliance, which complained about the recent field trip.

Kearny School District Superintendent Jacqueline Cusack said the school bus was paid for by the group, which had a right to go because it was an extracurricular activity.

Biologist Gene Kritsky, a professor at College of Mount St. Joseph in nearby Cincinnati, said he realizes that polls show almost half of Americans don't accept the evolutionary explanation and recognizes the right to believe in any view. But he worries the museum cloaks religion in science.

"The Bible is not a science book," he said. "In Job, it says that the Earth rests on pillars, but we don't teach that to children."

Reporter Chris Kenning can be reached at (502) 582-4697.

New Website Seeks To Convince Of Darwin's Faults


By Graeme McMillan, 12:00 PM on Fri May 29 2009

According to noted biologist Richard Dawkins, Darwinian evolution makes it possible to become an intellectually fulfilled atheist. According to Francis Collins, former head of the Human Genome Project, evolution is perfectly compatible with his Christian faith. Who is right? And why does it matter? This website is designed to help you find out. Here you will find articles, debates, video and audio, discussion questions, and other free resources as you explore the issues surrounding faith and evolution.

However, it's the work of the Center for Science and Culture at Discovery Institute, a conservative think tank that advocates the teaching of intelligent design in schools (Although they position doing so as a choice that protects academic freedom); according to New Scientist, the site may have been created to stop Christians becoming too enamored with the idea of scientific freedom:

The new website appears to be a response to the recent launch of the BioLogos Foundation, the brainchild of geneticist Francis Collins, former head of the Human Genome Project and rumoured Obama appointee-to-be for head of the National Institutes of Health. Along with "a team of scientists who believe in God" and some cash from the Templeton Foundation, Collins, an evangelical Christian who is also a staunch proponent of evolution, is on a crusade to convince believers that faith and science need not be at odds... The Discovery Institute has now made it crystal clear that they have no interest in reconciling science and religion – instead, they want their brand of religion to replace science. Which makes it all the more concerning when their new website includes resources and curricula for high-school biology classes, and promotes the pseudoscientific documentary film "Expelled" as part of their campaign to introduce non-scientific alternatives to evolution under the banner of "academic freedom".

The faith + evolution site seeks not only to argue against evolution, but those behind the theory as well, linking to articles claiming that Darwin's tacit approval of slavery as "natural" and, oddly enough, sites set up specifically to refute PBS documentaries about Darwin. Links supposedly to sites discussing evolution instead lead to more sites owned by the Discovery Institute, and the educational curriculum offered by the site offers no independent (or even pro-evolution) basis for learning. Here's hoping that those seeking to come to terms with the conflict between faith and science will start somewhere a little less... narrow-minded.

ACLU wants revision in La. science teaching rules


By Kevin McGill • The Associated Press • June 11, 2009

BATON ROUGE -- New rules for teaching science in Louisiana should include specific prohibitions on the teaching of scientific creationism and intelligent design, the American Civil Liberties Union said Wednesday.

The ACLU urged the state education board to revisit the issue.

The Board of Elementary and Secondary Education voted in January on the rules, which were drawn up to implement 2008 legislation.

That legislation allowed local school systems and teachers to introduce into science classes supplemental teaching materials in addition to state-approved textbooks.

The rules were published in the state register in April for public viewing and comment before they are formally adopted.

In its comment, the ACLU complained the board in January rejected language specifically forbidding the teaching of creation science and intelligent design -- concepts knocked down by federal courts as religion-based.

The board also rejected draft language prohibiting teaching materials that "advance the religious belief that a supernatural being created humankind" and another sentence stating, "Religious beliefs shall not be advanced under the guise of encouraging critical thinking."

The ACLU said those prohibitions should be restored as well.

The Christian conservative group Louisiana Family Forum had fought such language, saying it went beyond the original intent of the 2008 legislation. The rules still prohibit materials that "promote any religious doctrine." The ACLU called that language "vague at best."

A supporter of the legislation and the policy language, Casey Lufkin, of the Discovery Institute, said he believes both are clear.

"It is logically and legally impossible for religion to be taught under this law," he said.

The more specific language favored by the ACLU is redundant and could actually discourage free and open discussion in the classroom, argued Lufkin, whose organization supports the intelligent design theory but opposes laws requiring that it be taught.

Dale Bayard, chairman of the board committee that approved the guidelines, and Amy Westbrook, executive director of the board, did not immediately return telephone messages Wednesday afternoon.

The 2008 legislation allows use of supplemental materials, not approved in advance by the state, that backers say could be used to promote critical thinking about topics including evolution, the origins of life and global warming. Opponents said they fear the bill is a veiled attempt to illegally promote religion in science classes.

Louisiana law mandating that scientific creationism be given equal time in state classrooms with evolution was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1987 as an effort to promote religion.

The concept of intelligent design, which holds the universe's order and complexity are so great science alone cannot explain them, has been struck down at the federal district court level.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Darwin of the Gaps


Review of The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief by Francis S. Collins
By: Jonathan Wells
Discovery Institute
March 26, 2008

The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief
Francis S. Collins
New York: Free Press, 2006
ISBN: 978-1-4165-4274-2
Paperback, 305 pp., $15

On June 26, 2000, President Bill Clinton announced the completion of the Human Genome Project, which had just deciphered the sequence of DNA in a human cell. "Today," he said, "we are learning the language in which God created life." At the president's side was Francis Collins, director of the project, who had helped to write Clinton's speech. "It is humbling and awe-inspiring," Collins said, "to realize that we have caught the first glimpse of our own instruction book, previously known only to God."

As its subtitle indicates, The Language of God presents evidence for Christian belief. Curiously, however, that evidence does not include DNA, which according to Collins provides "compelling" evidence for Darwin's theory of evolution instead. In the course of defending Darwinian evolution as "unquestionably correct," Collins argues that intelligent design not only "fails in a fundamental way to qualify as a scientific theory" but is also "doing considerable damage to faith."


Francis Collins criticizes intelligent design (ID) on the grounds that it fails to suggest approaches for experimental verification, but then he cites experiments that he says prove it wrong. He also criticizes it for being a God of the gaps argument, but only after redefining ID as an argument from ignorance. Collins feels that ID poses a serious problem to Christian belief because it rejects Darwinian evolution, which he feels is supported by overwhelming evidence. But the only evidence Collins cites for Darwin's mechanism of variation and selection is microevolution – minor changes within existing species. And the principal evidence he cites for Darwin's claim of common ancestry is DNA sequences that he says have no function – though genome researchers are discovering that many of them do have functions. Collins's defense of Darwinian theory turns out to be largely an argument from ignorance that must retreat as we learn more about the genome – in effect, a Darwin of the gaps.

From atheism to belief

Part of Collins's book is devoted to his own journey from childhood atheism to belief in God. In his "most awkward moment" as a physician, a patient asked him what he believed, and he realized that although he was a scientist he had "never really seriously considered the evidence for and against belief." From that moment on he was "determined to have a look at the facts, no matter what the outcome."

One of the facts Collins looked at, and the one that impressed him most, was the "Moral Law" – the concept of right and wrong that "appears to be universal among all members of the human species." Influenced by the writings of C. S. Lewis, and convinced that the Moral Law "cannot be explained away as cultural artifact or evolutionary by-product," Collins concluded that its source must be God.

Collins continued to seek evidence for his belief. He found some in the Big Bang, which "cries out for a divine explanation." He found more in the orderliness of natural laws and in the Anthropic Principle, "the idea that our universe is uniquely tuned to give rise to humans." According to Collins, "the fact that the universe had a beginning, that it obeys orderly laws that can be expressed precisely with mathematics, and the existence of a remarkable series of 'coincidences' that allow the laws of nature to support life… point toward an intelligent mind."

This is not the same as what has become known as "intelligent design." In fact, Collins is worried that intelligent design (ID) is endangering faith by encouraging Christians to pin their faith on illusory evidence that evaporates in the light of new scientific discoveries.

God of the gaps?

According to Collins, ID rests upon three propositions: (1) "evolution promotes an atheistic worldview;" (2) "evolution is fundamentally flawed, since it cannot account for the intricate complexity of nature;" and (3) "if evolution cannot explain irreducible complexity, then there must have been an intelligent designer."

Like many other critics of ID, Collins thus begins by using a definition of ID that is different from that of its proponents. According to the web site of Discovery Institute's Center for Science and Culture (the worldwide headquarters of the intelligent design movement), "Intelligent design holds that certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, not an undirected process such as natural selection."1

Contrary to Collins's first proposition, ID does not claim that "evolution promotes an atheistic worldview." Evolution can mean simply change over time, which carries no religious or anti-religious implications. Or it can mean minor changes within existing species, an uncontroversial phenomenon that is also religiously neutral. Problems arise with respect to Darwin's theory, though, which excludes design in the details of living things. Darwin himself wrote that he saw "no more design in the variability of organic beings, and in the action of natural selection, than in the course which the wind blows." So he was "inclined to look at everything as resulting from designed laws, with the details, whether good or bad, left to the working out of what we may call chance." 2 Because Darwinism excludes design in the details, many people (including many Darwinists!) have argued that it "promotes an atheistic worldview." But the conflict between Darwinism and ID concerns only the question of whether certain features of living things are better explained by an intelligent cause or by undirected natural processes.

Collins's second and third propositions falsely imply that ID consists only of a negative argument – as though the absence of evidence for Darwinism automatically justifies an inference to design. Yet (as we shall see below) a design inference is warranted only when effects resemble those that we know from experience are due to an intelligent cause. The fact that Darwinian theory cannot explain something may be a necessary condition for inferring intelligent design, but it is not sufficient.

Collins argues that ID (as he defines it) is not science: "Intelligent design fails in a fundamental way to qualify as a scientific theory. All scientific theories represent a framework for making sense of a body of experimental observations. But the primary utility of a theory is not just to look back but to look forward. A viable scientific theory predicts other findings and suggests approaches for further experimental verification. ID falls profoundly short in this regard."

Collins then criticizes biochemist Michael Behe's claim that some features of cells are irreducibly complex. "By irreducibly complex," Behe wrote in 1996, "I mean a single system composed of several well-matched, interacting parts that contribute to the basic function, wherein the removal of any one of the parts causes the system to effectively cease functioning." 3 Behe argued that whenever we encounter irreducible complexity in our daily lives we quite reasonably attribute it to an intelligent agent, since that is the only cause we know that can produce it.

Behe described several features of living organisms that he argued were irreducibly complex. One of these was the human blood-clotting cascade, a system of interacting proteins that ensures that clots will form only when and where they are needed. But Collins asserts that "the well-established phenomenon of gene duplication" shows that the component parts of the blood-clotting cascade "reflect ancient gene duplications that then allowed the new copy… to gradually evolve to take on new a function, driven by the force of natural selection." Behe wrote a response to this criticism in 20004, which Collins ignores.

More surprising is the fact that Collins is here citing experimental evidence against a theory he maintains is unscientific because it is not open to experimental testing. In claiming that evidence from gene duplication disproves ID, Collins is demonstrating that ID can be tested with scientific evidence. Either ID is unscientific, in which case evidence is irrelevant; or evidence can be cited against it, in which case ID is scientific. Collins can't have it both ways.

The most "damaging crack in the foundation of intelligent design" for Collins, however, is recent research that allegedly undercuts Behe's argument for the irreducible complexity of the bacterial flagellum, a propulsion system driven by a microscopic high-speed motor. Collins first re-casts Behe's view of irreducible complexity as a claim that "the individual subunits of the flagellum could have had no prior useful function of some other sort," then he proceeds to argue against that claim. 5

As evidence, Collins cites the type III secretory apparatus (TTSS), "an entirely different apparatus used by certain bacteria to inject toxins into other bacteria that they are attacking" that is composed of proteins similar to some of those in the bacterial flagellum motor. "Presumably," Collins writes, the elements of the TTSS "were duplicated hundreds of millions of years ago, and then recruited for a new use; by combining this with other proteins that had previously been carrying out simpler functions, the entire motor was ultimately generated. Granted, the type III secretory apparatus is just one piece of the flagellum's puzzle, and we are far from filling in the whole picture (if we ever can). But each such new puzzle piece provides a natural explanation for a step that ID had relegated to supernatural forces, and leaves its proponents with smaller and smaller territory to stand upon."

As in the case of the blood-clotting cascade, Collins ignores Behe's counterargument – in this case, that "there's no reason that parts or sub-assemblies of irreducibly complex systems can't have one or more other functions." 6 The fact that a fuel pump can be used for other purposes doesn't mean that the automobile engine of which it is a part is undesigned. Furthermore, evidence suggests that the bacterial flagellum is older than the TTSS. If anything, the latter probably de-volved from the former! 7

In any case, Collins is again citing evidence (as he did above) against a theory he says can't be tested against the evidence. Without noticing the contradiction, he concludes: "Scientifically, ID fails to hold up, providing neither an opportunity for experimental validation nor a robust foundation for its primary claim of irreducible complexity."

Collins then adds a new twist: "More than that, however, ID also fails in a way that should be more of a concern to the believer than to the hard-nosed scientist. ID is a 'God of the gaps' theory, inserting a supposition of the need for supernatural intervention in places that its proponents claim science cannot explain. Various cultures have traditionally tried to ascribe to God various natural phenomena that the science of the day had been unable to sort out – whether a solar eclipse or the beauty of a flower. But those theories have a dismal history. Advances in science ultimately fill in those gaps, to the dismay of those who had attached their faith to them. Ultimately a 'God of the gaps' religion runs a huge risk of simply discrediting faith. We must not repeat this mistake in the current era. Intelligent design fits into this discouraging tradition, and faces the same ultimate demise."

But Collins's "God of the gaps" description of the history of science is inaccurate, except perhaps as an account of the demise of animism. As physicist David Snoke has written, "Did anyone ever argue for the existence of God because we did not understand magnets or the orbits of the planets? Perhaps some pagan shaman somewhere has argued that way, but I see no evidence for any serious Christian argument along these lines." 8 And Collins's suggestion that scientific advances have eliminated intelligent design is exaggerated, to say the least. After all, for the blood-clotting cascade and the bacterial flagellum the only thing Collins offers is speculation about ancient gene duplications.

The most egregious flaw in Collins's statement, though, is his misinterpretation of ID.

First, ID is not inserting supernatural intervention, unless intelligence itself is defined as supernatural. ID makes only the minimal claim that it is possible to infer from the evidence of nature that some features or patterns in nature are explained better by an intelligent cause than by undirected processes. True, one can then ask about the nature of the intelligence, and a reasonable answer would be God. But ID does not take us that far; it is not natural theology.

Second, and more importantly, design inferences are not arguments from ignorance. No sane person argues, "I don't know what caused X, therefore it must be designed." We infer design in our daily lives when X resembles things that we know are produced by intelligence and could not plausibly have been produced without it. Irreducible complexity is one hallmark of designed things; the "specified complexity" of William Dembski is another. 9 In either case, we infer design most reliably when we have more evidence, not less.

Darwin and his contemporaries thought living cells were blobs of protoplasm; it was easy for them to assume that such blobs were undesigned. But as modern biologists learn more and more about the irreducibly complex biochemical cascades and molecular machines needed for life, it becomes less and less plausible to dismiss cells as accidental by-products of unguided natural forces.

Rather than criticizing intelligent design for what it is, Collins tries to make it something it isn't and criticizes that instead. His real target is not ID, but God of the gaps reasoning, which he considers a grave danger to religious faith because of what he believes to be overwhelming evidence for Darwinian evolution.

Overwhelming evidence?

As director of the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI), Collins argues that data from DNA sequencing provide "powerful support for Darwin's theory of evolution, that is, descent from a common ancestor with natural selection operating on randomly occurring variations." Regarding the second part of the theory (natural selection acting on random variations), Collins writes: "Darwin could hardly have imagined a more compelling digital demonstration of his theory than what we find by studying the DNA of multiple organisms. In the mid-nineteenth century, Darwin had no way of knowing what the mechanism of evolution by natural selection might be. We can now see that the variation he postulated is supported by naturally occurring mutations in DNA." Although most mutations are neutral or harmful, "on rare occasions, a mutation will arise by chance that offers a slight degree of selective advantage. That new DNA 'spelling' will have a slightly higher likelihood of being passed on to future offspring. Over the course of a very long period of time, such favorable rare events can become widespread in all members of the species, ultimately resulting in major changes in biological function."

Collins continues: "Some critics of Darwinism like to argue that there is no evidence of 'macroevolution' (that is, major change in species) in the fossil record, only of 'microevolution' (incremental change within a species)." But he writes that "this distinction is increasingly seen to be artificial." To prove his point, Collins cites a Stanford University study of stickleback fish 10. Marine sticklebacks typically have armor plates extending from head to tail, but many freshwater sticklebacks lack such plates, and biologists have found a correlation between this difference and variations in the gene for Ectodysplasin (EDA), a molecule involved in the formation of the plates. Collins concludes: "It is not hard to see how the difference between freshwater and saltwater sticklebacks could be extended to generate all kinds of fish. The distinction between macroevolution and microevolution is therefore seen to be rather arbitrary; larger changes that result in new species are a result of a succession of smaller incremental steps."

But marine and freshwater sticklebacks are merely varieties of the same species, Gasterosteus aculeatus. There is no evidence here that variations in their gene for EDA would (or even could) lead to the origin of a new species, much less to the new organs or major changes in body plans needed for macroevolution. The same can be said for the only other example cited by Collins, variations in disease-causing viruses, bacteria, and parasites.

In 1937, evolutionary biologist Theodosius Dobzhansky noted that "there is no way toward an understanding of the mechanisms of macroevolutionary changes, which require time on a geological scale, other than through a full comprehension of the microevolutionary processes observable within the span of a human lifetime." He concluded: "For this reason we are compelled at the present level of knowledge reluctantly to put a sign of equality between the mechanisms of macro- and microevolution, and proceeding on this assumption, to push our investigations as far ahead as this working hypothesis will permit." 11

Like Dobzhansky, Collins merely assumes that microevolution can be extrapolated to macroevolution. Despite seventy years of genetic research the extrapolation remains an assumption, and the distinction between micro- and macroevolution is no more "arbitrary" now than it was then.

Regarding the first part of Darwin's theory (descent from a common ancestor), Collins writes that "the study of multiple genomes" enables evolutionary biologists "to do detailed comparisons of our own DNA sequence with that of other organisms." Since DNA mutations accumulate over time, organisms with a recent common ancestor would be expected to show fewer differences in their DNA than organisms that diverged much earlier. "At the level of the genome as a whole," Collins writes, "a computer can construct a tree of life based solely on the similarities of DNA sequences," and he includes an evolutionary tree ("phylogeny") of mammals constructed in this way. Collins concludes: "This analysis does not utilize any information from the fossil record, or from anatomical observations of current life forms. Yet its similarity to conclusions drawn from studies of comparative anatomy, both of existent organisms and of fossilized remains, is striking."

What Collins doesn't mention is that the DNA data often lead to conflicting phylogenies. For example, his evolutionary tree in The Language of God shows flying lemurs related to tree shrews, and rabbits and monkeys on more distant branches. But a phylogeny published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA in 2002 shows flying lemurs related to monkeys and tree shrews related to rabbits. 12 Conflicts among different DNA-based trees are a major headache for evolutionary biologists, some of whom spend their entire careers attempting to resolve them.

Not only can phylogenies constructed with DNA conflict with each other, but they can also conflict with phylogenies based on morphology. Take whales, for example – fossils of which Collins asserts are "consistent with the concept of a tree of life of related organisms." On morphological grounds, evolutionary biologist Leigh Van Valen proposed in the 1960s that modern whales are descended from an extinct group of hyena-like animals.13 Then, in the 1990s, molecular comparisons suggested that whales are more closely related to hippopotamuses 14. In 2001, however, evolutionary biologist Kenneth D. Rose reported that "substantial discrepancies remain" between the morphological and molecular evidence 15. And in 2007, J. G. M. Thewissen and his colleagues pointed out that since whales appear in the fossil record 35 million years before hippopotamuses "it is unlikely that the two groups are closely related." Thewissen and his colleagues concluded from morphological comparisons that whales are descended from a raccoon-like animal instead. 16

The conflict between morphological and molecular phylogenies continues, and the problem is bigger than whales. In 2007, British scientists analyzed 181 molecular and 49 morphological trees and observed that "molecular and morphological phylogenies often seem to be at odds with each other." 17 Clearly, as a general statement, Collins's claim that DNA trees are strikingly similar to trees drawn from comparative anatomy is false.

According to Darwinian theory, natural selection would tend to eliminate DNA changes that are harmful, but not changes that have no effect on function. When molecular biologists discovered in the 1970s that the vast majority of the mammalian genome consists of DNA that does not code for proteins, some assumed that this was simply mutational garbage that had accumulated over the course of evolutionary history. Collins cites certain segments of this "junk DNA" known as "ancient repetitive elements (AREs)," which he argues originated from transposable elements ("jumping genes"). Collins writes that almost half of the human genome is "made up of such genetic flotsam and jetsam." Remarkably, when one compares AREs in mice and humans "many of them remain in a position that is most consistent with their having arrived in the genome of a common mammalian ancestor, and having been carried along ever since."

The key assumption underlying Collins's argument is that the AREs are functionless. In a revealing passage Collins writes: "Some might argue that these are actually functional elements placed there by a Creator for a good reason, and our discounting of them as 'junk DNA' just betrays our current level of ignorance. And indeed, some small fraction of them may play important regulatory roles. But certain examples severely strain the credulity of that explanation. The process of transposition often damages the jumping gene. There are AREs throughout the human and mouse genomes that were truncated when they landed, removing any possibility of their functioning. In many instances, one can identify a decapitated and utterly defunct ARE in parallel positions in the human and the mouse genome. Unless one is willing to take the position that God has placed these decapitated AREs in these precise positions to confuse and mislead us, the conclusion of a common ancestor for humans and mice is virtually inescapable."

Here (and elsewhere in his book) Collins is using a peculiarly Darwinian form of argument. In The Origin of Species, Darwin repeatedly argued that his theory must be true because divine creation is false. This is an odd way to defend a scientific theory, yet it is common in the Darwinian literature. For example, in a section on "Evidence for Evolution" in the 2005 college textbook Evolution, Douglas J. Futuyma wrote: "There are many examples, such as the eyes of vertebrates and cephalopod molluscs, in which functionally similar features actually differ profoundly in structure. Such differences are expected if structures are modified from features that differ in different ancestors, but are inconsistent with the notion that an omnipotent Creator, who should be able to adhere to an optimal design, provided them." 18

How do Futuyma and Collins know what a Creator would do? Where else in science are statements about a Creator used to support a theory? Obviously, there's something very strange about Darwinian "science."

Stripped of its dubious theological content, Collins's argument reduces to this: Darwin's theory predicts the accumulation of functionless DNA differences, and that is what we find. But recent genome research provides growing evidence that much "junk DNA" is not functionless at all. For example, in 2006 Japanese and American researchers discovered that "a large number of nonprotein-coding genomic regions are under strong selective constraint" – meaning that they have functions, otherwise selection would not affect them. The researchers wrote: "Transposable elements are usually regarded as genomic parasites, with their fixed, often inactivated copies considered to be 'junk DNA'… [but many such] sequences have been under purifying selection and have a significant function that contributes to host viability." 19 In other words, the very "decapitated and utterly defunct" transposable elements that Collins considers his best evidence are turning out not to be functionless after all.

A similar result was reported by California scientists in 2007, who surveyed 10,402 noncoding elements in the human genome and found that a surprisingly high percentage functioned in gene regulation. They concluded that "mobile elements may have played a larger role than previously recognized." 20 The same year, Australian molecular biologists reported: "While less than 1.5% of the mammalian genome encodes proteins, it is now evident that the vast majority is transcribed, mainly into non-protein-coding RNAs… [of which] increasing numbers are being shown to be functional." The Australians concluded that the percentage of the genome that encodes functional information "may be considerably higher than previously thought." 21 And in 2008, American researchers demonstrated an important function for noncoding RNAs transcribed from segments of repetitive DNA that had previously been considered junk. 22 It seems that with each scientific advance Collins's "inescapable" evidence for common ancestry shrinks.

In addition to "junk DNA," Collins also cites "silent mutations" in protein-coding segments of DNA. Since three letters of the DNA code are needed to specify one amino acid, and since there are sixty-four possible arrangements of such letters but only twenty amino acids, most amino acids can be specified by more than one three-letter "word." This means that even in the protein-coding segments of DNA some mutations do not change the resulting amino acid sequence. These are sometimes called "silent mutations."

In the course of evolution, natural selection would tend to eliminate proteins that have been damaged by changes in their amino acid sequences, so according to Darwinian theory organisms are more likely to carry DNA mutations that do not produce such changes than those that do. According to Collins, when we compare DNA sequences of related species, "silent differences are much more common in the coding regions than those that alter an amino acid. That is exactly what Darwin's theory would predict. If, as some might argue, these genomes were created by individual acts of special creation, why would this particular feature appear?"

There he goes again, invoking a theological argument to support what is supposedly a scientific theory. Theology aside, his argument (as above) relies on the assumption that "silent" mutations are functionless. In 2002, however, Uruguayan scientists discovered that a "silent" mutation in a gene in bacteria decreased the solubility of the resulting protein, even though it did not change the amino acid sequence. 23 And in 2007, scientists at the U. S. National Cancer Institute found that a "silent" mutation in mammalian cells significantly altered the functional properties of a multi-drug resistance protein while leaving its amino acid sequence unchanged. 24 If "silent" mutations are not silent after all, then Collins's argument falls apart.

So Collins defends Darwin's theory by assuming that microevolution can be extrapolated to macroevolution, and by assuming that certain segments of DNA have no function despite growing evidence that they do.

Darwin of the gaps

Recall Collins's principal objection to ID: "ID is a 'God of the gaps' theory, inserting a supposition of the need for supernatural intervention in places that its proponents claim science cannot explain… But those theories have a dismal history. Advances in science ultimately fill in those gaps, to the dismay of those who had attached their faith to them. Ultimately a 'God of the gaps' religion runs a huge risk of simply discrediting faith. We must not repeat this mistake in the current era. Intelligent design fits into this discouraging tradition, and faces the same ultimate demise."

Except for the "supernatural" part, this actually sounds like a description of Collins's own strategy of defending Darwinism by relying on supposedly functionless segments of DNA. He repeatedly assumes that if we are ignorant of the function of a stretch of DNA then it has no function; it is simply a relic fortuitously inherited from a common ancestor. But the more molecular biologists learn about DNA, the more they discover functions in what were previously thought to be functionless segments. Collins's defense of Darwinian evolution becomes less tenable with every new advance.

How ironic. Collins claims he's basing his case for Darwinism on new knowledge from genome sequencing, but he's actually basing it on gaps in that knowledge. Collins himself argues that such an approach has "a dismal history." Advances in science ultimately fill in those gaps, to the dismay of those who had attached their faith to them. Ultimately a "Darwin of the gaps" approach runs a huge risk of simply discrediting science. We must not repeat this mistake in the current era. Darwinism fits into this discouraging tradition, and faces the same ultimate demise.


1 What is the theory of intelligent design?" from Frequently Asked Questions at the web site of Discovery Institute's Center for Science & Culture.

2 F. Darwin, The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin (New York: D. Appleton, 1887), 1:278-298 and 2:105-106.

3 M. J. Behe, Darwin's Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution (New York: The Free Press, 1996), p. 39.

4 M. J. Behe, "In Defense of the Irreducible Complexity of the Blood Clotting Cascade: Response to Russell Doolittle, Ken Miller and Keith Robison," Discovery Institute (July 31, 2000). Available here.

5 Here Collins cites K. R. Miller, "The Flagellum Unspun: The Collapse of Irreducible Complexity," pp. 81-97 in W. A. Dembski and M. Ruse (editors), Debating Design: From Darwin to DNA (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004).

6 M. J. Behe, "Afterword," Darwin's Black Box 10th Anniversary Edition (New York: The Free Press, 2006), p. 268.

7 S. A. Minnich & S. C. Meyer, "Genetic Analysis of Coordinate Flagellar and Type III Regulatory Circuits in Pathogenic Bacteria," Second International Conference on Design & Nature, Rhodes, Greece (September 1, 2004). Available here.

8 D. Snoke, "In Favor of God-of-the-Gaps Reasoning," Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 53 (2001): 152-158.

9 W. A. Dembski, The Design Revolution: Answering the Toughest Questions About Intelligent Design (Downer's Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004), especially chapters 8-15.

10 P. F. Colosimo et al., "Widespread Parallel Evolution in Sticklebacks by Repeated Fixation of Ectodysplasin Alleles," Science 307 (2005): 1928-1933.

11 T. Dobzhansky, Genetics and the Origin of Species, Reprinted 1982 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1937), p. 12.

12 U. Arnason et al., "Mammalian mitogenomic relationships and the root of the eutherian tree," Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA 99 (2002): 8151-8156. Available here.

13 L. Van Valen, "Deltatheridia, a New Order of Mammals," Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History 132 (1966): 1-126.
L. Van Valen, "Monophyly or Diphyly in the Origin of Whales," Evolution 22 (1968): 37-41.

14 D. Normile, "New Views of the Origins of Mammals," Science 281 (1998): 774-775.
R. Monastersky, "The Whale's Tale: research on whale evolution," Science News (November 6, 1999). Available online (June 2006) here.

15 K. D. Rose, "The Ancestry of Whales," Science 293 (2001): 2216-2217.

16 J. G. M. Thewissen et al., "Whales originated from aquatic artiodactyls in the Eocene epoch of India," Nature 450 (2007): 1190-1194. Abstract available here.

17 D. Pisani et al., "Congruence of Morphological and Molecular Phylogenies," Acta Biotheoretica 55 (2007): 269-281.

18 D. J. Futuyma, Evolution (Sunderland, MA: Sinauer Associates, 2005), p. 49.

19 H. Nishihara et al., "Functional noncoding squences derived from SINEs in the mammalian genome," Genome Research 16 (2006): 864-874. Available here.

20 C. B. Lowe et al., "Thousands of human mobile element fragments undergo strong purifying selection near developmental genes," Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA 104 (2007): 8005-8010. Available here.

21 M. Pheasant & J. S. Mattick, "Raising the estimate of functional human sequences," Genome Research 17 (2007): 1245-1253. Available here.

22 P. D. Mariner et al., "Human Alu RNA Is a Modular Transacting Repressor of mRNA Transcription during Heat Shock," Molecular Cell 29 (2008): 499-509. Abstract available here.

23 P. Cortazzo et al., "Silent mutations affect in vivo protein folding in Escherichia coli," Biochemical and Biophysical Research Communications 293 (2002): 537-541. Abstract available here.

24 C. Kimchi-Sarfaty et al., "A 'Silent' Polymorphism in the MDR1 Gene Changes Substrate Specificity," Science 315 (2007): 525-528. Abstract available here.

The Roots of ID


Filed under: History and Philosophy (often of Science), Intelligent Design — John Lynch @ 4:45 am

In a recent document, "The Roots of Intelligent Design" [pdf] posted on their new Faith & Evolution website, the Discovery Institute states:

Some people claim that intelligent design developed in response to modern court cases or debates over Biblical creationism in the twentieth century. Others assert that intelligent design grew out of "Christian fundamentalism." This selection of readings and other resources is designed to allow people to investigate and discuss the roots of intelligent design for themselves. The readings and questions can be used for personal study and reflection or for group discussion.

This is followed by a series of discussion questions pertaining to extracts of varying lengths from Plato, Cicero, Josephus, Philo of Alexandria, the Old and New Testaments, and the writings of the Early Church Fathers. The general thrust of these extracts and questions is simple – a claim that intelligent design is not a partisan, modern, Christian invention.

Firstly, the DI are being more than a little disingenuous here. No one – least of all the philosopher Barbara Forrest who has most completely documented the history of the modern design movement or Michael Ruse in his history of the design argument, Darwin & Design – is claiming that the design argument is a modern invention, merely that the argument reemerged as a major strategy within Christian anti-evolutionism in response to a series of legal defeats for fundamentalist strategies such as "creation science." Note that I'm making a distinction between (1) the argument itself, and (2) the renaissance of that argument in light of events in the past 30 years through the development of a self-conscious ID movement.. When I have talked in public and in the classroom about the roots of the ID movement, I have always stressed the long history of the argument, via discussion of Plato, Cicero, Lucretius, Aquinas, Newton, Hume, Paley and, of course, Darwin (among others). The standard narrative sees the argument surviving Hume's cogent attack in Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion only to be polished off when Darwin offered the first coherent naturalistic mechanism by which apparent design ("contrivances") could be achieved. Arguments about design had to be significantly modified in the years following 1859 (see, for examples, the works collected in Richard England's Design After Darwin, Thoemmes, 2003). For the majority of the twentieth century, the design argument – though sometimes used – fell into relative disuse until its resurgence in the 1990's following the Edwards decision.

Secondly, I'm not sure that the DI's sourcebook actually helps their case for disentangling design from Christianity. Verses from Proverbs, Job, Psalms, Matthew, Acts, and Romans – while they may show that the design argument predates Edwards v. Agulllard – do nothing to separate the argument from Christianity. Inclusion of the non-scriptural writings of Theophilus, Athenagoras, Irenaeus, Dionysius, Lactantius, Athanasius and Chrysostom doesn't help either. Whether these arguments

appeal primarily to evidence that only Christians can accept, or do they point to facts, observations, and arguments that non-Christians can see and understand? (b) How are these writings from Christian thinkers similar to or different from the writings of Plato and Cicero on design? (c) What do these Christian writings show about whether the design inference is based primarily on the authority of the Bible or on evidence and logic to all human beings regardless of whether they accept the Bible?

is largely irrelevant, given the apologetic nature of the writings. Of course the writers appealed to extra-Biblical evidence. What is important here is not the arguments themselves but the role they were being marshaled to play in Christian apologetics, a role that they are essentially still playing today.

The Christian nature of all of this is clearly indicated by the relative attention given to Christian and non-Christian material (all word counts are approximate):

Acknowledging that the extracts given above are not exhaustive and are, nonetheless, representative of the available material, it is notable how little the scriptures argue for design. The representation of Jewish thinkers is perfunctory and the vast majority of the sourcebook is given over to the Church Fathers. In fact, if we ignore scriptural sources, we have approximately 1500 words from the secular Plato & Cicero being joined by ~800 from Jewish sources and 8000+ from the Church Fathers. The best evidence for the antiquity of the design argument – or at least the most sustained evidence – comes from the Christian writers. (I am of course aware that Plato and Aristotle use the argument in various places, but the DI choose not to include these, instead clearly concentrating on the Church Fathers. They also ignore Hume's treatment of the argument which is in many ways more clearly stated – via the voice of Cleanthes – than Cicero's. The reason for this omission is fairly obvious: Hume decimates any attempt at an argument from design).

Similar to Hume's Dialogues, Cicero's De Natura Deorum is a three-way interaction, in this case between an Epicurean, a Stoic and an Academic. The issue here is not whether design can be detected but whether the gods (whom all three interlocutors agree exist) care for humans in any meaningful way. While the extract chosen by the DI "outlines the basic Stoic argument about design in nature", the DI fails to note that Cicero then offers cogent arguments against this position through the other two characters. Plato's Philebus is a late dialogue whose central argument is an interaction between two claims:

Philebus was saying that enjoyment and pleasure and delight, and the class of feelings akin to them, are a good to every living being, whereas I [Plato through Socrates] contend, that not these, but wisdom and intelligence and memory, and their kindred, right opinion and true reasoning, are better and more desirable than pleasure for all who are able to partake of them, and that to all such who are or ever will be they are the most advantageous of all things.

In the end, Plato claims that the good life consists of a mixture of pleasure and knowledge. I will leave it up to the reader to figure out the function of the design argument within the overall argument. So in the case of both Cicero and Plato, the sourcebook does not invite us to seriously engage with the arguments presented in the context they are given. Instead, we are essentially invited to merely accept Cicero and Plato as proto-design proponents (pdesignproponentists, if you will).

Lastly, the document briefly rallies Thomas Jefferson (as a deist) and Alfred Russel Wallace (as an evolutionist) to support their claim that the appeal to design is not necessarily a Christian argument. No actual writings by Wallace are presented, and unmentioned, of course, is Wallace's spiritism and the fact that he was more of a selectionist that even Darwin. Once again, information is ripped from its historical context.

The intended audience for their sourcebook is "a small group, an adult Sunday School class, a church school science class, or a mid-week adult education program." Any such group of students would be left with a slanted depiction of how the design argument has been supported – and refuted – though the past 2,500 years. If I engaged in such non-contextualized presentation in my classroom, I would rightly be accused of being a bad teacher. More importantly, the audience would receive no indication of how the argument ceased to be scientifically and philosophically tenable and instead became an issue of interest solely to apologists and theologians.

The question remains as to how relevant it is to even identify design arguments outside of Christian apologetics. It is not surprising that various individuals have argued that design can be detected in nature; whether this design is real or apparent and whether it indicates the sort of designer that the individual wishes to exist, is another matter. Psychologists have discovered that humans in general – and children in particular – exhibit three innate biases:

These biases are actually useful for children to make predictions in the world and are defaults that adults revert to at times. We clearly see all three at work in the design argument.

The "Roots" document ends with a series of questions to which I offer the following answers:

Note: Thanks to Pete Dunkelberg for pointing out a few minor typos. That's what I get for writing this while in a cafe in Crete.

The Discovery Institute fails again


Posted on: June 3, 2009 9:29 AM, by PZ Myers

The Intelligent Design creationists have done it again: thrown together another piece of sloppy scholarship to defend themselves from a non-argument. John Lynch is lazing in the balmy Mediterranean, and casually demolishes them in an afternoon in a Cretan cafe. It sounds like hard work, philosophizing.

Anyway, the gist of the Discovery Institute claim is, oh, no, we didn't invent intelligent design creationism in response to recent American court cases — it's an old argument with roots in antiquity. Which, of course, is something no one has ever argued against. We know the argument from design is ancient. We've said it repeatedly: a 20th century right wing think tank in Seattle had merely plucked an old rationale that Paley had made in the early years of the 19th century and recycled it, ignoring the logical refutations of design made even earlier by Hume and the empirical argument against it deployed by Darwin. I can't imagine anyone familiar with the DI ever suggesting that they might have been original or creative.

Lynch goes into considerable more detail on the philosophical foundations of the idea, but again the lesson is the same: the DI is pretty much incompetent at everything they do.

My Turn: Intelligent design, religion unrelated


By Jim Goff • June 6, 2009

The author of a recent letter ("No double standard for Stein, Dawkins," May 9) described intelligent design theory as a "religion-based 'theory.'" While this claim is quite common among the foes of ID, it is also quite false. ID theorists draw their conclusions from biological data, not from religious precepts. ID is committed to the following propositions (as elucidated by design theorist William Dembski in "The Design Revolution"):

1. Specified complexity is a reliable indicator of design.

2. Many biological systems exhibit specified complexity.

3. Undirected, or unintelligent, material causes do not suffice to explain the origin of specified complexity in biological systems.

4. Intelligent design constitutes the best explanation for specified complexity in biological systems.

In their efforts to flesh out those propositions and give them theoretical and evidentiary solidity, ID theorists use probability theory, recursion theory, computer science, stochastic process theory, molecular biology, biological informatics, biochemistry, microbiology, information theory, genetics, embryology, paleontology, philosophy of science and Dembski's explanatory filter. They make no appeals at all to any religious precepts in making the case for design in biological systems.

ID theory - like Darwinism - has nothing whatsoever to say about God, although it clearly has theistic implications (God being the most likely candidate for the role of biological designer). Theistic ID proponents quite openly discuss those theistic implications in their writings (just as atheistic evolutionists like Richard Dawkins quite openly discuss the atheistic implications of Darwinism), but the theistic implications of ID should not be confused with the theory itself. As Dembski put it: "Intelligent design requires neither a meddling God nor a meddled world. For that matter, it doesn't even require that there be a God."

Design theorists argue that while certain biological data support design inferences, the data do not provide an inferential trail leading to the identity of the designer. To get from ID theory to God, one must leave the science of intelligent design behind and enter the realm of theology. ID's lack of any commitment to the Genesis account of creation is precisely why so many creationists are either lukewarm toward the theory or actually oppose it.

The letter writer also asserted that Ben Stein, a supporter of intelligent design, promotes teaching ID theory "at the point of a governmental gun." This claim is also quite false. As Stein's documentary "Expelled" made so clear, Stein is an advocate of academic and scientific freedom. In his movie, Stein lamented the intellectual tyranny that is so characteristic of the Darwinian establishment, a tyranny that punishes teachers and scientists who dare to openly challenge Darwinist dogma or who speak favorably of intelligent design.

But - like the principals in the ID movement - Stein does not advocate that government should mandate the teaching of ID theory. The education policy of Discovery Institute (the institutional home of the ID movement) states: "As a matter of public policy, Discovery Institute opposes any effort to require the teaching of intelligent design by school districts or state boards of education. ... Instead of mandating intelligent design, Discovery Institute seeks to increase the coverage of evolution in textbooks. It believes that evolution should be fully and completely presented to students, and they should learn more about evolutionary theory, including its unresolved issues. In other words, evolution should be taught as a scientific theory that is open to critical scrutiny, not as a sacred dogma that can't be questioned. ... Although Discovery Institute does not advocate requiring the teaching of intelligent design in public schools, it does believe there is nothing unconstitutional about voluntarily discussing the scientific theory of design in the classroom."

As someone who has read some two dozen books by design theorists, I've learned that critics of ID tend to base their criticisms on their biased imaginations rather than on any knowledge of ID gained from the design literature. The letter writer of May 9 demonstrated their pattern of echoing and re-echoing one another's misrepresentations of ID.

Jim Goff lives in Shelburne.

Evolution education update: June 5, 2009

NCSE's Eugenie C. Scott is interviewed in Science, while NCSE's Steven Newton explains what's wrong with the new Texas state science standards. And two antievolution bills in the Texas legislature are now dead.


NCSE's executive director was interviewed in the latest issue of Science under the headline "Eugenie Scott Toils in Defense of Evolution." Introducing the interview, Science's Yudhijit Bhattacharjee remarked, "Last week, Scott won the inaugural Stephen Jay Gould Prize from the Society for the Study of Evolution, only weeks after Scientific American ranked her among the country's top 10 science and technology leaders for her self-described role as 'Darwin's golden retriever.'"

Explaining that the antievolution movement has become more diverse over the last twenty years, Scott reviewed the present situation, noting especially the prevalence of "closet creationism being introduced through wording not obvious to those unfamiliar with the history of the controversy." Asked what scientists should do to help the cause of defending the teaching of evolution, she answered, "Universities need to do a better job of teaching evolution because that's where high school teachers get their training. Evolution needs to be brought into every course of biology instead of getting tacked on as a unit to the intro class."

For the interview (subscription required), visit:


Writing in The Earth Scientist, the journal of the National Earth Science Teachers Association, NCSE's Steven Newton explains in detail what's wrong with the new state science standards adopted in Texas in March 2009, focusing on the Earth and Space Science standards in particular. At the behest of the creationist faction on the state board of education, references to the specific age of the universe, common descent, and evolution were removed, and language that misleadingly suggests that established scientific results are in doubt was introduced. Newton concludes, "Although the original ESS standards were based on strong science and outlined an excellent course in earth sciences, a number of creationist and anti-science amendments have weakened the ESS standards and disrespected the hard work and expertise of the writing team. The standards are finalized and in place, bad amendments and all. The struggle for science education in Texas now shifts to the adoption of textbooks in 2011, when these deeply-flawed amendments may be used to force a creationist agenda into Texas science classrooms."

For Newton's article (PDF, pp. 30-33), visit:

And for NCSE's previous coverage of events in Texas, visit:


Two antievolution bills -- House Bill 2800 and House Bill 4224 -- died when the Texas legislature adjourned on June 1, 2009. HB 2800 would have exempted institutions such as the Institute for Creation Research's graduate school from Texas's regulations governing degree-granting institutions, thus freeing the ICR to offer a master's degree in science education despite the Texas Higher Education Coordination Board's 2008 decision to deny the ICR's request for a state certification of authority to offer the degree. The ICR is currently suing THECB in federal court over its decision. HB 4224 would have required the Texas state board of education to restore the controversial "strengths and weaknesses" language in the Texas state science standards. Although creationists on the board were unsuccessful in restoring the "strengths and weaknesses" language, they successfully introduced a requirement that students examine "all sides of scientific evidence." Partly due to his attempts to undermine the treatment of evolution in the state science standards, the senate voted not to confirm Don McLeroy in his position as chair of the board; the Fort Worth Star-Telegram (May 31, 2009) editorially commented, "It is overly optimistic to say the Senate's rejection of Don McLeroy as chairman of the State Board of Education will end the missteps and arguments that have plagued the board during the past two years. Still, we can hope."

For the text of the bills, visit:

For the Fort Worth Star-Telegram's editorial, visit:

And for NCSE's previous coverage of events in Texas, visit:

Thanks for reading! And don't forget to visit NCSE's website -- http://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

Eugenie C. Scott's Evolution vs. Creationism -- now in its second edition!

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

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