Saturday, 27 December 2008

Always Feeding and Gloating for More

Jerry Coyne (wiki) gave a "guest lecture" at Manchester University in November 2008, as the guest of Matthew Cobb (University of Manchester).

I cheekily asked to attend after Jerry had contacted the BCSE for some updates on the creationism situation here in the UK, I happened to be in Manchester on the due day and my new boss kindly allowed me a long lunch hour.

After the recent controversies about Michael Reiss, what he did or didn't say and how the Royal Society (over)reacted, followed by more recent headline claims that one third of UK teachers wanted Creationism in science classes I was particularly keen to see just how Jerry would handle the issue.

Let’s just take the time to ensure that we spell things out clearly here (no matter how confusing the creationists would like to make the issue);
Of course the BCSE does not want creationism taught as science in science classes, but of course if the subject is brought up, then it should be treated just like any other pseudoscientific claim a student may bring up, by being soundly debunked.

The lecture theatre was full (you will hopefully be able to see for yourself soon as a video of the event is planned for iTunes U) and there were a number of faculty there as well as students from various life science courses.

Jerry, who had been quiet and thoughtful as we entered the theatre and as he set up, seemed to come to life as the lecture theatre lights dimmed and the audience quietened in expectation.

This is a quick summary of the main points he covered but look out for the podcast ( I will place a link to it here in due course).

We began with the Clarence Darrow quote from the time of the original monkey trial;
"If today you can take a thing like evolution and make it a crime to teach in the public schools, tomorrow you can make it a crime to teach it in the private schools and next year you can make it a crime to teach it to the hustings or in the church. At the next session you may ban books and the newspapers... Ignorance and fanaticism are ever busy and need feeding. Always feeding and gloating for more. Today it is the public school teachers; tomorrow the private. The next day the preachers and the lecturers, the magazines, the books, the newspapers. After a while, Your Honor, it is the setting of man against man and creed against creed until with flying banners and beating drums we are marching backward to the glorious ages of the sixteenth centry when bigots lighted fagots to burn the men who dared to bring any intelligence and enlightenment and culture to the human mind."

[Clarence Darrow, at the Scopes Monkey Trial, 1925]

Jerry then assured us that the next item was not a joke before he unleashed the infamously daft "the banana is an atheist nightmare" video;

Just in case you think that really is just a joke played by someone trying to make creationists look silly then here is another link which goes into even more detailed silliness on this topic.

Lot's of laughter which petered out slowly as Jerry repeated that this is actually a serious attempt at an argument in the US. People gradually realised exactly what it is that science and rational thought are actually up against.

We also got to see what the banana looked like before it was artificially selected by human beings and effectively "evolved" through artificial rather than natural selection into it's current state.

Next Jerry showed us stats comparing countries by the percentage of the population that accept evolution - the US is very near the bottom alongside Turkey. The UK is quite near the top.

We are reminded that we are probably going to see more and more of the creationists activities which have previously been laughed at as a USA phenomenon here in the UK in future.

To back this up we are shown the survey results from Teachers TV here in the UK from here.

To illustrate what we are up against here are some quotes from a leading creationist William Dembski who promotes intelligent deisgn as not being creationist;
“4. Does your research conclude that God is the Intelligent Designer?
I believe God created the world for a purpose. The Designer of intelligent design is, ultimately, the Christian God.”

From here

or perhaps this. . .
“"Christ is indispensable to any scientific theory, even if its practitioners do not have a clue about him."

From here.

Another important point to bear in mind is the difference between the use of the word theory in every day talk and the use of this same word in scientific circles.

Jerry reminded us all that Creationists are certainly not above using any kind of possible tactic to further their argument including the deliberately confusing misuse of the English language.

In scientific circles a theory is not a guess or possible idea as in everyday speech but instead refers to an extremely well tested framework of ideas which have stood up to minute scrutiny over a long period of time.

The tenets of evolutionary theory are as follows;
  • Evolution happened
  • It was a gradual process which took a long time
  • It lead to speciation
  • It therefore implies the existence of a “tree of life”
  • Natural selection was one of the processes behind evolution

The facts which support these tenets in brief summary form;
  • Fossil Record - we are specifically reminded of speciation in diatoms
  • Transitional Forms - reptiles - birds / land mammals to whales
  • Embryology - rear limbs in dolphins / Lanugo on newborn children (hair)
  • Vestigial Organs - rear leg bones in whales / appendix / Kiwi bird wings / Recurrent Laryngeal Nerve (from when we were fish) - even in Giraffes
  • Biogeography - Glyptodont fossils in one area of earth - their modern descendants occupy the same area now - Armadillo
  • Molecular Biology
  • We now have over 300 observed cases of natural selection operating in the wild.

Jerry summed up the huge mass of evidence that supports evolutionary theory with the following famous quote;
“Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution.”

From here.

There are actually two forms of Intelligent Design;
  • Weak form - used in court and in public
  • Strong form- used by those same proponents as use the weak form in public when speaking to religious sponsors

Jerry finished by chatting about the Judge in the infamous Dover trial from a couple of years back who identified Intelligent Design as Creationism and famously said this in his judegment;
“the argument of irreducible complexity, central to ID, employs the same flawed and illogical contrived dualism that doomed creation science in the 1980's”.

In other words;

Intelligent Design is a science stopper.

Jerry got a warm round of applause - not the usual thing for a lecture - but very well deserved.


  1. Well worth waiting for. Thanks. (Oh, and have a banana - latest version).

  2. Ray Comfort is one of the bigger clowns amongst creationists. Seems to have been linked or associated with Truth in Science as well.