Newsfront

Charter schools open door for creationism

Government plans to establish charter schools look like providing a way for creationists to get their teachings into New Zealand’s classrooms (Dominion Post, 19 August).

The Manukau Charitable Christian Trust is planning to team up with the Manukau Christian School to teach a “philosophy” titled ‘In God’s World’, to be marked against the Cambridge curriculum.

The philosophy encourages every subject to be taught so students “discover” how God made the world, and upholds and governs it.

Trust chairman Tony Bracefield said it planned to open a number of junior classes at churches, feeding up to senior classes on Manukau Christian School’s grounds. He said the school would use non-qualified teachers, and teach about 200 children in the long term.

Post Primary Teachers Association president Robin Duff said the types of people who appeared to be interested in charter schools would not have made it through teacher education.

” In the case of the trust, we’d be concerned if an organisation with a ‘statement of faith’ that denies evolution and claims creation according to the Bible is a historical event, were to receive state funding.”

He said the trust could be grouped with religious organisations like Destiny Church and the Maharishi Foundation, which had both expressed interest in charter schools, and which delivered education that denied scientific principles.

Associate Education Minister John Banks said he would not comment on the trust’s charter plans.

A day later, the NZ Herald (20 August) reported Banks had told Radio Rhema he has no doubts the first chapters of Genesis are true. “That’s what I believe, but I’m not going to impose my beliefs on other people, especially in this post-Christian society that we live in, especially in these lamentable times. There are reactionaries out there, humanists in particular, that overrun the bureaucracies in Wellington and state education.”

Racist creationists upset Kawerau

Meanwhile, many residents of Kawerau have been upset by a creationist pamphlet mail drop in the small Bay of Plenty town (NZ Herald, 22 September).

“Are you a racist? You are if you believe in evolution!” the pamphlet states. “Kids are taught in school that man evolved (changed) from a chimp. So I ask you who changed the most from a black chimp with black hair and brown eyes? A black man with black hair and brown eyes? Or a white man with blond hair and blue eyes?”

People who received the pamphlet should “rip it up and bin it,” said Vicki Hall, a spokeswoman for the Race Relations Commissioner. “The commission’s position is that the pamphlet is clearly offensive. However, there is no law that prevents someone from publishing it.”

While the pamphlet accuses those who “believe in evolution” of racism, it is based on the racist premise that black people look more like chimps than white people do. Yet two of the three chimp subspecies have fair skin, and Caucasians tend to be hairier than other peoples. The similarity between chimps and people of colour is all in the minds of the pamphlet’s producers, and the citizens of Kawerau were right to pick these mealy-mouthed hypocrites as racists.

Death’s link to vaccine ‘convoluted pseudoscience’

The likelihood of an Upper Hutt teenager having died as a result of the cervical cancer vaccine has been rejected as convoluted pseudoscience by Helen Petousi-Harris, of Auckland University’s Immunisation Advisory Centre (Dominion Post, 21 September).

Jasmine Renata, 18, died in her sleep in September 2009, six months after completing the programme for cervical cancer vaccine Gardasil.

She suffered from runny noses, headaches, warts, tiredness, a racing heart and other symptoms. During an inquest in August, her parents said they believed the vaccine was the cause of their daughter’s failing health and eventual death.

Canadian neuroscientist Christopher Shaw and US pathologist Sin Hang Lee told the inquest heavy aluminium staining in Ms Renata’s brain tissue could have acted as a “trojan horse”, bringing the human papillomavirus into her brain.

But Dr Petousis-Harris said on 20 September that the doctors’ arguments were convoluted and not based on scientific evidence. “I find that quite concerning, given the gravity of the issue here. Anyone who has had the vaccine may become worried, and anyone planning to have it may also become worried. But it’s based on no evidence at all, which is not good. You have got to make your decisions based on good science.”

It was important to discuss the weaknesses in the research so parents and possible vaccine recipients had all the information, she said.

There is further commentary on this case at Http://www.immune.org.nz/commentary-coronial-inquiry-expert-witness-testimony

Medium to ‘help heal’ Pike River pain

Australian medium Deb Webber, of Sensing Murder fame is once again in this country using a tragedy to promote her business (Greymouth Star, 16 August).

Webber, who caused anger in 2009 by raising the case of missing Auckland toddler Aisling Symes while plugging her shows on breakfast television (Aisling’s body was recovered from a stormwater pipe a few days later), has announced that this spring she will meet with family of Pike River disaster victims to help heal their pain with readings in a private session.

“I have been flooded with emails from family members so it will be nice to help them out,” Webber’s publicist said.

Given that Webber has no psychic ability (see NZ Skeptic 104), it’s uncertain exactly how she is going to be able to help at all.

Didgeridoo healing reaches NZ

Back in NZ Skeptic 102 Alison Campbell reported on how didgeridoos could be used to clear emotional and energetic stagnation, and help ” to quantum manifest healing and the co-creation of our universe.” Now this amazing medical breakthrough is available in New Zealand (Stuff, 6 September), thanks to yet more visitors from across the Tasman.

Australia-based psychic double act K and Dr Michael appeared in Auckland on 18 September. The US-born Dr Michael bills himself as a “vibrational healer with the didgeridoo” and a reiki master who “gives energy healing with past life and spirit healing messages”.

K on the other hand is “blessed with psychic abilities since childhood” and is said to be “one of Australia’s most sought after clairvoyants”. Must have been quite a night.

More Dunedin ghosts

Dunedin is emerging as the haunted capital of New Zealand. Following a series of ghostly events at Otago University’s Cumberland College ( NZ Skeptic 104) spirits are now reported to be occupying the nearby Globe Theatre ( Otago Daily Times, 2 July).

Five members of paranormal investigation group The Other Side Paranormal visited the theatre to follow up earlier research into three spirits believed to be there. The spirits were said to be those of Robert Blackadder, who lived in the building in the 19th century before it became a theatre, a girl called Mary Elizabeth Richmond who lived in the building in the 1860s, and former theatre caretaker Frank Grayson, who died in the 1980s.

“I think it’s safe to say the caretaker Frank is still there. He is just there looking after the place, basically. We’ve found a few things on our video footage … a few light anomalies,” said investigator Kelly Cavanagh.

There was also an “incident” when a person felt someone sit down next to them, and a photo revealed “energy” beside them. Other information gathered from an electromagnetic field reader, temperature gauge, and voice recorder would be analysed over the next week, Ms Cavanagh said. “We’ve definitely got some results and we are quite happy with what we’ve found.”

Using pseudoscience to teach science

There may indeed be a place for creationism in the science classroom, but not the way the creationists want. This article is based on a presentation to the 2011 NZ Skeptics Conference.

We live in a time when science features large in our lives, probably more so than ever before. It’s important that people have at least some understanding of how science works, not least so that they can make informed decisions when aspects of science impinge on them. Yet this is also a time when pseudoscience seem to be on the increase. Some would argue that we simply ignore it. I suggest that we put it to good use and use pseudoscience to help teach about the nature of science – something that Jane Young has done in her excellent book The Uncertainty of it All: Understanding the Nature of Science.

The New Zealand Curriculum (MoE, 2007) makes it clear that there’s more to studying science than simply accumulating facts:

Science is a way of investigating, understanding, and explaining our natural, physical world and the wider universe. It involves generating and testing ideas, gathering evidence – including by making observations, carrying out investigations and modeling, and communicating and debating with others – in order to develop scientific knowledge, understanding and explanations (ibid., p28).

In other words, studying science also involves learning about the nature of science: that it’s a process as much as, or more than, a set of facts. Pseudoscience offers a lens through which to approach this.

Thus, students should be being encouraged to think about how valid, and how reliable, particular statements may be. They should learn about the process of peer review: whether a particular claim has been presented for peer review; who reviewed it; where it was published. There’s a big difference between information that’s been tested and reviewed, and information (or misinformation) that simply represents a particular point of view and is promoted via the popular press. Think ‘cold fusion’, the claim that nuclear fusion could be achieved in the lab at room temperatures. It was trumpeted to the world by press release, but subsequently debunked as other researchers tried, and failed, to duplicate its findings.

A related concept here is that there’s a hierarchy of journals, with publications like Science at the top and Medical Hypotheses at the other end of the spectrum. Papers submitted to Science are subject to stringent peer review processes – and many don’t make the grade – while Medical Hypotheses seems to accept submissions uncritically, with minimal review, for example a paper suggesting that drinking cows’ milk would raise odds of breast cancer due to hormone levels in milk – despite the fact that the actual data on hormone titres didn’t support this.

This should help our students develop the sort of critical thinking skills that they need to make sense of the cornucopia of information that is the internet. Viewing a particular site, they should be able to ask – and answer! – questions about the source of the information they’re finding, whether or not it’s been subject to peer review (you could argue that the internet is an excellent ‘venue’ for peer review but all too often it’s simply self-referential), how it fits into our existing scientific knowledge, and whether we need to know anything else about the data or its source.

An excellent example that could lead to discussion around both evolution and experimental design, in addition to the nature of science, is the on-line article Darwin at the drugstore: testing the biological fitness of antibiotic-resistant bacteria (Gillen & Anderson, 2008). The researchers wished to test the concept that a mutation conferring antibiotic resistance rendered the bacteria possessing it less ‘fit’ than those lacking it. (There is an energy cost to bacteria in producing any protein, but whether this renders them less fit – in the Darwinian sense – is entirely dependent on context.)

The researchers used two populations of the bacterium Serratia marcescens: an ampicillin-resistant lab-grown strain, which produces white colonies, and a pink, non-resistant (‘wild-type’) population obtained from pond water. ‘Fitness’ was defined as “growth rate and colony ‘robustness’ in minimal media”. After 12 hours’ incubation the two populations showed no difference in growth on normal lab media (though there were differences between four and six hours), but the wild-type strain did better on minimal media. It is hard to judge whether the difference was of any statistical significance as the paper’s graphs lack error bars and there are no tables showing the results of statistical comparisons – nonetheless, the authors describe the differences in growth as ‘significant’.

Their conclusion? Antibiotic resistance did not enhance the fitness of Serratia marcescens:

… wild-type [S.marcescens] has a significant fitness advantage over the mutant strains due to its growth rate and colony size. Therefore, it can be argued that ampicillin resistance mutations reduce the growth rate and therefore the general biological fitness of S.marcescens. This study concurs with Anderson (2005) that while mutations providing antibiotic resistance may be beneficial in certain, specific, environments, they often come at the expense of pre-existing function, and thus do not provide a mechanism for macroevolution (Gillen & Anderson, 2008).


Let’s take the opportunity to apply some critical thinking to this paper. Students will all be familiar with the concept of a fair test, so they’ll probably recognise fairly quickly that such a test was not performed in this case: the researchers were not comparing apples with apples. When one strain of the test organism is lab-bred and not only antibiotic-resistant but forms different-coloured colonies from the pond-dwelling wild-type, there are a lot of different variables in play, not just the one whose effects are supposedly being examined.

In addition, and more tellingly, the experiment did not test the fitness of the antibiotic-resistance gene in the environment where it might convey an advantage. The two Serratia marcescens strains were not grown in media containing ampicillin! Evolutionary biology actually predicts that the resistant strain would be at a disadvantage in minimal media, because it’s using energy to express a gene that provides no benefit in that environment, so will likely be short of energy for other cellular processes. (And, as I commented earlier, the data do not show any significant differences between the two bacterial strains.)

What about the authors’ affiliations, and where was the paper published? Both authors work at Liberty University, a private faith-based institution with strong creationist leanings. And the article is an on-line publication in the ‘Answers in Depth’ section of the website of Answers in Genesis (a young-earth creationist organisation) – not in a mainstream peer-reviewed science journal. This does suggest that a priori assumptions may have coloured the experimental design.

Other clues

It may also help for students to learn about other ways to recognise ‘bogus’ science, something I’ve blogged about previously (see Bioblog – seven signs of bogus science). One clue is where information is presented via the popular media (where ‘popular media’ includes websites), rather than offered up for peer review, and students should be asking, why is this happening?

The presence of conspiracy theories is another warning sign. Were the twin towers brought down by terrorists, or by the US government itself? Is the US government deliberately suppressing knowledge of a cure for cancer? Is vaccination really for the good of our health or the result of a conspiracy between government and ‘big pharma’ to make us all sick so that pharmaceutical companies can make more money selling products to help us get better?

“My final conclusion after 40 years or more in this business is that the unofficial policy of the World Health Organisation and the unofficial policy of Save the Children’s Fund and almost all those organisations is one of murder and genocide. They want to make it appear as if they are saving these kids, but in actual fact they don’t.” (Dr A. Kalokerinos, quoted on a range of anti-vaccination websites.)

Conspiracy theorists will often use the argument from authority, almost in the same breath. It’s easy to pull together a list of names, with PhD or MD after them, to support an argument (eg palaeontologist Vera Scheiber on vaccines). Students could be given such a list and encouraged to ask, what is the field of expertise of these ‘experts’? For example, a mailing to New Zealand schools by a group called “Scientists Anonymous” offered an article purporting to support ‘intelligent design’ rather than an evolutionary explanation for a feature of neuroanatomy, authored by a Dr Jerry Bergman. However, a quick search indicates that Dr Bergman has made no recent contributions to the scientific literature in this field, but has published a number of articles with a creationist slant, so he cannot really be regarded as an expert authority in this particular area. Similarly, it is well worth reviewing the credentials of many anti-vaccination ‘experts’ – the fact that someone has a PhD by itself is irrelevant; the discipline in which that degree was gained, is important. (Observant students may also wonder why the originators of the mailout feel it necessary to remain anonymous…)

Students also need to know the difference between anecdote and data. Humans are pattern-seeking animals and we do have a tendency to see non-existent correlations where in fact we are looking at coincidences. For example, a child may develop a fever a day after receiving a vaccination. But without knowing how many non-vaccinated children also developed a fever on that particular day, it’s not actually possible to say that there’s a causal link between the two.

A question of balance

Another important message for students is that there are not always two equal sides to every argument, notwithstanding the catch cry of “teach the controversy!” This is an area where the media, with their tendency to allot equal time to each side for the sake of ‘fairness’, are not helping. Balance is all very well, but not without due cause. So, apply scientific thinking – say, to claims for the health benefits of sodium bicarbonate as a cure for that fungal-based cancer (A HREF=”http://www.curenaturalicancro.com”>www.curenaturalicancro.com). Its purveyors make quite specific claims concerning health and well-being – drinking sodium bicarbonate will cure cancer and other ailments by “alkalizing” your tissues, thus countering the effects of excess acidity! How would you test those claims of efficacy? What are the mechanisms by which drinking sodium bicarbonate (or for some reason lemon juice!) – or indeed any other alternative health product – is supposed to have its effects? (Claims that a ‘remedy’ works through mechanisms as yet unknown to science don’t address this question, but in addition, they presuppose that it does actually work.) In the new Academic Standards there’s a standard on homeostasis, so students could look at the mechanisms by which the body maintains a steady state in regard to pH.

If students can learn to apply these tools to questions of science and pseudoscience, they’ll be well equipped to find their way through the maze of conflicting information that the modern world presents, regardless of whether they go on to further study in the sciences.

References

‘’Darwin’’s Dilemma’’: ID in NZ

Alison Campbell looks at a new ‘resource’ for New Zealand schools, helpfully provided by the creationist movement.

A little while ago Ken Perrott, who writes the Open Parachute blog, alerted me to an Intelligent Design website that appeared to be set up to provide ID ‘resources’ to teachers and others who might be interested. Today I found time to wander over and have a look at what was on offer (not much, at the moment(. The site’s owner is [idfilms[, who tells us that:
idfilms was established with the express purpose of reinvigorating and expanding the ID discussion in New Zealand and Australia. The people behind idfilms are committed to the search for truth about the origin of life and the universe, just like you.

The only resource currently on offer on the Products Page is a DVD entitled Darwin’s Dilemma, for which the blurb reads:
Darwin’s Dilemma explores one of the great mysteries in the history of life: The geologically-sudden appearance of dozens of major complex animal types in the fossil record without any trace of the gradual transitional steps Charles Darwin had predicted. Frequently described as [the Cambrian Explosion,[ the development of these new animal types required a massive increase in genetic information. [The big question that the Cambrian Explosion poses is where does all that new information come from?[ says Dr. Stephen Meyer, a featured expert in the documentary.

Interesting, given the subject matter, that one of the DVD’s [featured experts[ is neither a geneticist nor an evolutionary biologist…

[Darwin’s Dilemma[ isn’t a particularly accurate characterisation, given that discovery of the extensive Cambrian biota happened well after Darwin’s death. Nor is the idea of an [explosion[ all that accurate, as the evidence from palaeontology and molecular biology points to a rather more ancient origin for the various phyla found in Cambrian rocks.

The statement that [the development of these new animal types required a massive increase in genetic information[ suggests a lack of understanding of a particular suite of genes, the Hox genes. Major changes in morphology can come about as a result of small changes in the Hox genes, because they influence the arrangement and timing of development of various body parts. No need for [massive increases in genetic information[ here. However, that phrase is simply setting the stage for the claim that this increase in [information[ can only have come about through the agency of a designer, again ignoring the observed ability of mutations – such as the duplication of genes due to transposon activity – to do this all by themselves.

However, if we must look at [complex specified information[ (the catchphrase of Meyer’s colleague William Dembski for the way to recognise the work of the designer(, let’s ask a few questions about it. What exactly is complex specified information? How is it produced? How do we tell it apart from the bits of the genome that aren’t due to an external agency?

Well, the short answer would appear to be that even the ‘experts’ don’t know. How else are we to interpret the discussion associated with On the calculation of CSI, a post at Uncommon Descent? A concept that cannot be adequately explained can hardly form the basis of a sound teaching resource, let alone provide the impetus to change our view of how evolution works.

Creationism in Wellington schools

Creationism is not a new problem in New Zealand schools, as this article excerpt from NZ Skeptic 18 (December 1990) illustrates.

A report of a survey conducted in 1988

In order to ascertain to what extent creationist ideas and influence have penetrated secondary school science courses, we sent the following questionnaire to secondary schools in the Wellington region.

  1. Approximately how many hours are devoted to the teaching of evolution in your school and what proportion of pupils are taught it?

  2. Are creationist ideas being taught at your school as part of a science course?

  3. Do any science teachers in your school use Creationist literature with their classes?

Nine replies were received from about 35 schools circulated. Although this provides only a small sample, and few generalisations can be made, the replies represent a good cross section, from central city large schools to “suburban” schools, and single sex and co-ed schools.

Most teachers made no comment of any concern they may have felt about the influence of Creationism in our schools, but 2 teachers specifically stated they felt there is a problem and that they are concerned about it. Most teachers expressed confidence that their 7th form pupils were able to decide for themselves on the merits or otherwise of the Creationist arguments, but one teacher specifically stated a concern that some pupils had already been “indoctrinated” and that few pupils had “the scientific background to adequately evaluate Creationist literature.” Two schools said their science teaching staff included a Creationist (and a third school, from which no reply was received, is known to us). Hence, 3 out of 10 schools have Creationists on their science teaching staff.

Evolution is clearly absent altogether from lower Form (Forms 3-5) courses, and comprises a minor part, if any, of the 6th Form Biology course. In Form 7 it constitutes a major part (generally 20-35 hours) of the Biology course, which is taken by about 20-30% of the 7th Form. This presumably represents about 3% of the school role.

In total, 4 of the 9 schools expose their pupils to Creationist ideas in the teaching of evolution – generally as a “stimulus for discussion” but, in 2 cases, to show that there are “alternatives that many people accept”. Students are encouraged to discuss the question and to “decide for themselves”. Two mentioned that they had taken classes to hear Dr Wilder-Smith (a prominent Creationist spokesman) talk, during his recent visit to New Zealand.

Roger Cooper (Paleontologist, NZ Geological Survey)
Gordon Hewitt (Biologist, School of Health Sciences, Central Institute of Technology)
Frank Andrews (Astronomer, Carter Observatory(
Dave Burton (Zoologist, Victoria University(

So who are these ‘‘scientists anonymous’’?

Alison Campbell finds the creationists are still trying to get into our schools.

A friend of mine, who happens to be a biology teacher, recently forwarded me an email. Quite apart from the fact that the sender had sent it to what looks like every secondary school in the country and didn’t have the courtesy to bcc the mailing list, there are a number of issues around it that give me some concern.

But first, the email:

TO: Faculty Head of Science / Head of Biology Department

Please find attached a new resource (pp. 12-14) by Dr Jerry Bergman on the left recurrent laryngeal nerve (RLN) for the teaching and learning of Senior Science/Biology (human evolution). [Edit: The original email had a link to the article on RLN, which was on the Institute for Creation Research website.]

• Much evidence exists that the present design results from developmental constraints.

• There are indications that this design serves to fine-tune laryngeal functions.

• The nerve serves to innervate other organs after it branches from the vagus on its way to the larynx.

• The design provides backup innervation to the larynx in case another nerve is damaged.

• No evidence exists that the design causes any disadvantage.

Freely share this resource with the teaching staff in your faculty/department.

Yours sincerely,

Scientists Anonymous (NZ)

PRIVACY ACT/DISCLAIMER Dissemination of extraordinary science resources will be made once or twice a year at the most (opt out).

All replies will be read but not necessarily acknowledged (no-reply policy applies).

The distribution of resources through this mailing system is not by the Publishers.

It’s immediately obvious that this is a thinly disguised attempt by cdesign proponentsists to get ‘intelligent design’ materials into the classroom [Those unfamiliar with the term ‘cdesign proponentsists’ please use Google – ed.]. The use of the word ‘design’ is a dead giveaway there. The arrangement of the laryngeal nerves has been noted by biologists as an example of poor ‘design’ as it doesn’t follow a straightforward path to the organs it innervates (and in fact follows an extremely lengthy detour in giraffes!), leading to the question, why would a ‘designer’ use such poor planning? (There’s a good YouTube clip on the subject.) That the ID proponents now seem to be arguing that poor design is actually purposeful and thus still evidence of a designer smacks of grasping at straws. Furthermore, the article that the email originally linked to is mounted on the Institute for Creation Research website – it’s not published in a peer-reviewed journal. So there’s nothing “extraordinary” about this particular “resource”.

Of more significance, I think, is the identity of the originators of this message (and I note they promise others in future; at least one can opt out!). “Scientists Anonymous”. This is an attempt at an appeal to authority – a bunch of scientists say so, so we should give it some weight.

But we shouldn’t – because we don’t know who they are. No-one’s publicly signed their name to this stuff, so why should we accept their authority in this matter? Are there really any practising scientists there? Are any of them biologists? Who knows… but it adds no weight to their proclaimed position on this issue. The only person mentioned by name, Jerry Bergman, is indeed a biologist by training, for whom the first Google entries are citations by Answer in Genesis and CreationWiki. Google Scholar indicates that his recent publications are not in the area of biological sciences but promote anti-evolution ideas including the one that Darwin’s writings influenced Hitler’s attitudes to various racial groups (an idea that’s been throroughly debunked elsewhere).

A search for ‘scientists anonymous’ brings up a students’ Facebook site and a book of the same name about women scientists. So who, exactly, are these ‘Scientists Anonymous’ who are behind the email to schools, and why aren’t they prepared to put their names to the document?

Forum

Fault is with Creationism

Bernard Beckett (Skeptic 95 , p8) says the ability of Creationism to make the same predictions as evolutionary psychology shows that the latter is not a scientific process. But the same is equally true of evolutionary biology. (“God made cats resemble tigers, and apples resemble pears, because He felt like it.”) The fault is with Creationism, not evolution. An omnipotent Creator can be used to explain/predict absolutely anything, not only the universe as it is, but any other universe, possible or im-. You might say that Creationism, like Nostradamus and astrology, is very good for predicting the past. That is their fundamental failing.

Billy Joel’s daughter (p18) obviously had quite the wrong idea about what an overdose in homeopathy is. If she had sniffed the closed bottle, she would certainly have died as she wished. Homeopathy patients should be warned.

Hugh Young
Pukerua Bay

The great continental demolition derby

When creationists try to harmonise their worldview with certain inescapable facts of geology, the result is chaos.
Recently I had forwarded to me a document bearing the title Debunking Evolution: problems, errors, and lies exposed, in plain language for non-scientists.
The content was depressingly familiar, and can largely be guessed from the title, although the way it crams in so many technical, sciencey-sounding terms into its almost 15,000 words rather works against its claim to be “plain language”. The author is given as one John Michael Fischer; despite this tract being widely disseminated across the internet (often copied and pasted into forum discussion threads) I have not been able to find any information on him or his background.

A full rebuttal of all this material would be even longer than the original; there’s certainly not enough space for it in this publication. In any case, most of it is standard creationist fare that’s been refuted over and over again – no macroevolution (only microevolution), irreducible complexity, the tornado in a junkyard (or a minor variant), no fossil ancestors for Cambrian species, no transitional fossils, the demise of the Tree of Life (as reported in a New Scientist cover story), Ernst Haeckel’s embryo drawings, lack of true vestigial organs, and how the Second Law of Thermodynamics precludes evolution.

Only a couple of arguments are comparatively new. Fischer gets very excited about recent findings that “increasing biological complexity is correlated with an increasing number of non-protein-coding DNA sequences and not, as previously assumed, with an increasing number of protein-coding genes.” Cells contain many short sequences of RNA which don’t code for functional proteins but play a variety of roles in regulating cellular processes and protein synthesis. He concludes from this that the ‘junk’ DNA which makes up most of the genome isn’t really junk after all, but must have been inserted by a Designer to fulfill essential biological functions.

Developmental biologist and blogger PZ Myers disagrees, and as usual is not shy about saying why(scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2010/05/junk_dna_is_still_junk.php). Most of the RNA transcripts are from regions of DNA near known genes, suggesting that they’re artefacts, like an extended transcription of a gene. Occasionally one of them may be co-opted for a new function, but there’s no indication of design; the genome is still mostly dead in transcription terms. “Don’t look for demolition of the concept of junk DNA here,” Myers says.

This is all very well, but once Fischer has single-handedly demolished evolutionary theory, what would he replace it with? The answer is on his website (www.newgeology.us), which is the ultimate source for Debunking Evolution. Navigating around the site is a bit of a challenge, but it’s clear his real passion is for geology, rather than biology, though he shows no greater aptitude for that discipline.

The home page bears the title ‘Shock Dynamics’, which Fischer describes as “[a] new geology theory featuring impact-powered rapid continental drift as an alternative to plate tectonics. The key to creation geology.” What he is proposing is that in the few thousand years of the Earth’s history allowed by the creationists’ timescale, our planet has been subjected to three major meteoritic events, one involving multiple impacts. The most recent of these was “in the time of Peleg” (Gen. 10:25), in whose days, the Bible tells us, “the Earth was divided”. An enormous meteorite, Fischer says, struck the Earth just north of what is now Madagascar, driving the initially joined continents to their present locations in a matter of hours.

According to Bishop Ussher’s chronology, Peleg was born in 2247 BC, 101 years after the Flood, and lived 339 years. To put this in perspective, the Pyramid of Djoser in Egypt was built between 2630 and 2611 BC.

Continental Drift is a big issue for creationists. If all land animals are really descended from a single boatload that landed on a mountaintop in eastern Turkey, then explaining how they all got to their current locations takes some doing. How did kiwi and moa get to New Zealand? Or lemurs to Madagascar, or sloths to the Amazon? The problem looks slightly less insuperable if, at the time of the Flood, all the world’s land masses were joined. The 1000-plus landsnail species found only in New Zealand could then simply have crawled here, being careful not to leave any relatives along the way. Several creationists have therefore tried to come up with scenarios in which rapid, post-Flood continental movement may have occurred.

Fischer argues the energy of an incoming meteorite triggered the continents to slide up to 9000km (in the case of Australia) over a period of 26 hours. Yes, that’s right. Australia must have averaged a speed of almost 350 km/hr; given that accelerating and decelerating a continental landmass must take a while, the maximum velocity must have been considerably greater. How was this achieved? Fischer suggests a phenomenon called acoustic fluidisation may be involved. In this process vibrations from landslides, earthquakes or meteorite impacts “fluidise” loose debris so that it flows like a liquid. It’s a real phenomenon, and has been used to explain the effects of some earthquakes, or the long distances landslides sometimes flow across plains from their points of origin. Here then is Fischer’s scenario:

“The giant meteorite explodes, penetrating the continental crust. The force pushes up low mountains, and the landmass slides away like a ship on water, fluidizing the contact layer. Behind the landmass, a surface layer of oceanic crust is melting and cooling to form the mid-ocean spreading ridge with transform faults, pulled open by the landmass.
“When the leading edge loses enough energy, the contact layer at the leading edge solidifies. The momentum of the landmass carries it forward like a car hitting a wall, piling up high mountains. The formerly fluidized contact layer in front is a Benioff zone, called subduction zones in Plate Tectonics.”

Strictly speaking a Benioff zone is a deep, active seismic area within a subduction zone, but we know what he means.
One thing he doesn’t explain is why other meteorite impacts didn’t produce the same effect. And this is a problem, because Fischer invokes lots of big meteorites. The Flood was brought about by a whole swarm of meteorite strikes. As these struck the ocean they raised enormous splashes, which Noah interpreted as “the fountains of the deep” (Fischer differs from other creationists in asserting that the Flood story is an eyewitness account written by Noah, rather than divinely authored). They also unleashed the enormous volcanic event of the Siberian Traps (generally regarded as 250 million years old) and collapsed the waters above the heavens referred to in the first chapter of Genesis (Fischer calls the waters a “vapor canopy”), the ultimate cause of the Flood. This is an interesting one, because according to Psalm 148, those waters are still there:

“Praise him, ye heavens of heavens, and ye waters that be above the heavens.
“Let them praise the name of the LORD: for he commanded and they were created.

“He hath also stablished them for ever and ever: he hath made a decree which shall not pass.” (KJV)

So we have the ultimate irony: in order to uphold the literal truth of one part of the Bible, Fischer piles absurdity on absurdity, and in the end only succeeds in contradicting another part. (The vapour canopy, by the way, is pretty much standard creationist doctrine these days; few creationists ever seem to read anything in their Bibles beyond Genesis.)

But Fischer doesn’t stop there. The Flood kills off the dinosaurs, which are on a different landmass – people only live on Mesopotamia, or possibly East Antarctica, where dinosaur remains have not been found. I’m not sure how the landmasses can be undivided and yet there are two of them. Successive waves of ocean water deposit massive amounts of sediment, forming the geological column and fossil record. After the Flood the Chicxulub meteorite (generally credited with the demise of the dinosaurs) hits the Earth, but doesn’t seem to do much except spread around some iridium and shocked quartz.

The Flood survivors spread and multiply for several hundred years. Then the Shock Dynamics meteorite scatters the continents, raises all the mountain chains (the landmasses used to be low-lying; the Flood story describes how the tops of the mountains could be seen as the waters receded, but I think we can assume they were only little mountains) and wipes out many large mammal species. The force of the impact is enough to speed up the Earth’s rotation, so that the number of days in a year increases from 360 to 365.2. All those sliding continents heat the oceans, which causes massive evaporation, which in turn causes cooling, bringing on the Ice Ages. You’d think the Chinese, the Egyptians, and the other civilisations of the time would have noticed.

Other scenarios

The internet (and creationist literature) is awash with material like this. Shock Dynamics theory is not merely the work of a lone crackpot, but a fairly representative example of a mode of thought that remains very widespread. Fischer is not the only one pushing a literal division of the Earth in the time of Peleg, although other creationists have come up with different mechanisms.

The Associates for Spiritual Knowledge, for example (www.askelm.com/news/n090219.pdf) favour an expanding Earth pushing the continents apart. The Associates for Biblical Research (< A HREF=”www.biblearchaeology.org/post/2006/05/of-peleg-and-pangaea.aspx”>www.biblearchaeology.org/post/2006/05/of-peleg-and-pangaea.aspx ) don’t propose a mechanism at all, merely suggesting the continents drifted apart during Peleg’s lifetime.

Other creationists disagree. These include the most active group locally, Creation Ministries International (CMI), who maintain the division in Peleg’s time was purely a cultural one. They say the continents were separated at the time of the Flood (creation.com/in-pelegs-days-the-earth-was-divided), and the animals later migrated via land bridges during the post-Flood Ice Age, or were moved around by people. This, they argue, avoids the problem of another (post-Flood) catastrophe that would accompany such a division, and destroy most land life. Those sloths dragged themselves across Siberia and over a Bering Strait land bridge to get to the Amazon, apparently. Or maybe the first Americans took them along as pets, packing plenty of Cecropia leaves to feed them on the journey.

One way rapid continental drift may have been triggered at the time of the Flood is set out in something called Hydroplate Theory, the brainchild of one Dr Walt Brown, who explains all in his book In the Beginning. This states that before the Flood there was a massive amount of water underneath the crust. Pressure on the water caused the plates to break and separate; the escaping water then flooded the whole earth, and the continental plates flew apart at speeds of up to 72 km/hr (creationwiki.org/Hydroplate). Others believe the Earth is hollow (www.ourhollowearth.com). Rodney M Cluff, author of World Top Secret: Our Earth Is Hollow! claims:

“Located at 87.7 degrees North and South Latitude are Polar Openings that lead into the hollow interior of our planet where the Lost Ten Tribes of Israel today dwell in perfect harmony, with life spans equal to those of the Methuselahs of the Bible, whose only desire is to live in peace. Their flying saucers in defense of their country at times are seen on our surface world. They don’t come to destroy, they are waiting… Waiting for us to discover that world peace is the only answer, not without God, but WITH Him.” [ellipsis and emphasis in original]

Then there are the geocentrists. A 1999 Gallup poll found 18 percent of Americans, when asked whether the Earth revolved around the sun or the sun around the Earth, picked the latter, while another three percent had no opinion. Poll results in Britain and Germany are similar. Probably for most of these people it’s just not a question they’ve given much thought to, but the Association for Biblical Astronomy (www.geocentricity.com) have devoted a lot of time and effort to it. In their view, whenever the Bible and astronomy are at variance, it is always astronomy “- that is, our ‘reading’ of the ‘Book of Nature,’ not our reading of the Holy Bible – that is wrong.” Key passages in the Bible indicate the Earth is motionless at the centre of the universe and that’s the end of it; the Earth neither rotates daily nor revolves around the sun. The geocentrists regard more liberal groups, such as the Institute for Creation Research, CMI and Answers in Genesis, as accommodationists.

Though they may disagree vehemently among themselves, all these groups are united by their belief in the inerrancy of the Bible. What’s more, they insist that only faith in the infallibility of scripture can provide the philosophical underpinnings that allow a person to avoid straying into error. CMI’s Jonathan Sarfati, for example, writes:

“[W]e are not merely asking opponents to consider biblical presuppositions as an alternative way of looking at the evidence. Nor are we merely saying that they are ‘nicer’, nor even that they provide a superior framework that better explains the data (although both of these are true as well). Rather, the claim is even stronger: that the biblical framework is the only one that provides the foundation for science, voluntary will, logic and morality.”

This just doesn’t wash. The clearest sign that “biblical presuppositions” are no foundation for science and logic is the plethora of nonsensical scenarios that creationists have concocted in their attempts to harmonise the evidence of geology with their preconceived notions of a Flood, a six-day creation and a 6000-year-old Earth. Science, which allows the freedom to adapt our views on the Earth’s history in the light of fresh information, remains the best philosophical framework for investigating the world around us. ‘Creation science’ is no alternative.

A tribal occasion

When Richard Dawkins made a flying visit to New Zealand in March he attracted people from all over the country – including three from this household. Tickets to all events were quickly snapped up, but fortunately friends in the Auckland Univeristy Alumni Association put some aside for us.

The information content of a one-hour lecture (with about 20 minutes for questions) is not that great. And there wasn’t much in his presentation that anyone familiar with his work wouldn’t have encountered before, although he concluded with some ideas on the origins of religion that were new to me. For not much more than the $30 admission fee (less than half what Kelvin Cruickshank charges for an evening, I had to note) you could buy one of his many books, which would keep you busy for days.

But the evening wasn’t really about learning new stuff. It was a gathering of the tribe, of sorts, though admittedly it’s a rather odd tribe. It’s one that doesn’t really have leaders, but to paraphrase Terry Pratchett, Richard Dawkins is one of the most highly regarded of the leaders we don’t have. It was just good for one’s cosmic energy levels, to be in the same room, and breathe the same air for a while.

One gratifying feature of the evening was the age range in attendance. Grey, balding heads and beards would once have overwhelmingly predominated at an event like this, but there were good numbers of university age in the audience, and a much more even gender ratio than would have prevailed 20 years ago. Our 19-year-old daughter received jealous comments when she had to graciously decline an invitation to a steampunk party the same night.

And as a bonus, we picked up several free copies of The Origin of Species – the edition with the “Special Introduction” by New Zealand-born creationist Ray Comfort, which were being handed out on the street nearby. He’s gone out of his way to make Darwin’s words inaccessible: I didn’t know they made typefaces that small, although of course his introduction is impeccably laid out, with lots of amusing 19th century caricatures of Darwin. But I can’t help thinking that distributing this book to people who otherwise would never go near a copy is not a brilliant strategy, especially now he’s been made to call in his original version that was missing crucial chapters. Poor old Ray was never the sharpest knife in the drawer – check out his clip on YouTube about how the banana is an atheist’s worst nightmare. This latest stunt of his will no doubt create further amusement, but few converts, unless they’re in an unintended direction.

Newsfront

Save the rocks, say Celt theorists

THOSE zany Ancient Celt people never give up, do they? Now they’re campaigning to protect some boulders on a hillside at Silverdale, north of Auckland, due to be levelled as a site for a new hospital (NZ Herald, 6 May).

The boulders are almost perfectly spherical concretions, similar to the famous Moeraki Boulders. Martin Doutré, author of Ancient Celtic New Zealand, says they were placed on the hill as one of many structures built for calendar and surveying functions by fair-skinned people known as “Patu paiarehe” – before Maori came from Polynesia about 800 years ago.

Some showed ancient etchings of geometric designs similar to those on structures in Britain dating back to 3150BC, he believes.

“They were concretion boulders, which can only form in sea sediments, yet they had made it to the top of this high, yellow clay hill.”

Geological Society spokesman Bruce Hayward said there was no mystery how the boulders got to their current position. Like most of New Zealand, Silverdale was once under the sea. The boulders formed there 70 million years ago, and were raised up by tectonic activity. Softer sediments around them had since eroded away, leaving them exposed.

Creationists settle their differences

The acrimonious split between creationist organisations Answers in Genesis (AiG) and Creation Ministries International (CMI) (see The great downunder creationism takeover , NZ Skeptic 87) has been papered over, for the time being at least (Kentucky Enquirer, April 27).

Both sides have reached an out-of-court settlement in their battle over copyright and mailing list ownership, which has been running since 2005.

The US 6th Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati ordered the rivals to arbitration in February in a decision that described the fight as a power struggle for control of the creationist message.

CMI has criticised AiG for its financial dealings and approach to creationist teaching. CMI chief Carl Wieland has also accused AiG’s Ken Ham of trying to take control of his organisation, stealing mailing lists and spreading false and vicious rumours about him and his ex-wife. In documents filed in US courts, officials with AiG said Ham was the victim of a disinformation campaign by the Australian group.

Ham, originally from Brisbane and now living in Kentucky, took the US and UK branches of AiG out of the global organisation in 2004, starting his own magazine and appropriating the mailing list of the Australian branch’s publication, which had been distributed world-wide. The AiG organisations in Australia, New Zealand, Canada and South Africa then re-branded as CMI.

Something tells me this accord won’t last long. There’s too much money at stake in the global creationism industry, and the feud between Ham and Wieland has gotten really personal.

Dinosaur park heads for extinction

A plan for a multi-million dollar dinosaur-themed park in Waihi has been shelved (Waikato Times,, 10 June).

Newsfront mentioned this one back in NZ Skeptic 84 because the park’s backer, the Dinosaurs Aotearoa Museum Trust, was founded by Darren and Jackie Bush, who operate a Wellington business called Dinosaurs Rock. They run school geology programmes, presenting both evolutionary and creationist perspectives, depending on their audience.

The park was to feature a museum with local finds, replica skeletons and life-sized dinosaur models built by Weta Workshop. </>

A statement to the Waikato Times cited “unsuccessful funding applications in the Waikato”, “increased risks” and “the added pressure of the global recession” as reasons for the project not proceeding.

Skeptic photo among NZ’s spookiest

A photo of a ghostly head in a basket first published in NZ Skeptic 44 has made a short list of four of New Zealand’s spookiest photos (The Press, 4 May).

The disembodied head photographed by Halswell resident Carol McDonald was eventually identified as a photo of Jack Nicholson, from The Shining, which had been on the back cover of the previous month’s Skywatch magazine. The way the magazine was lying over the basket’s other contents gave it a remarkably three-dimensional appearance.

Of the other Press images, two where faces could be discerned in flames in a Westport Volunteer Fire Brigade exercise left Skeptics chair-entity Vicki Hyde unimpressed. “Shots involving fire, smoke and fog are notorious for producing ghost images,” she said. The other photos were equally easy to explain.

One, from a North Island pub which showed an indistinct feline-type face in the lower part of a window, “looks to be a reflection of objects inside the room”, while a face peering between two students at Linwood College could easily have been someone behind the pair trying to get in shot.

“Have you ever seen teenagers mugging for the camera? It’s hard to tell, with the tight cropping and over-exposure blanking out the surrounds.”

Makutu ritual ‘without cultural basis’

The ritual which led to the death of Janet Moses had more to do with The Exorcist than anything in traditional Maori culture, according to statements made by witnesses (Dominion Post, 14 June).

Moses died in Wainuiomata in October 2007 during attempts to lift a makutu, or curse, from her. Five members of her family were convicted of manslaughter on 13 June.

Tainui tikanga Maori teacher Tui Adams said in evidence that the cleansing ritual was without cultural basis and alien to anything he knew. And kaumatua Timi Rahi told the court he had never heard of a ceremony in which large amounts of water were poured into someone’s nose and mouth to remove an evil spirit.

One of those convicted, Hall Jones Wharepapa, said: “We got her into the shower and we turned the cold water on … I don’t know if you’ve seen the movie Exorcist, but it was like that.”

Dr Adams said makutu was a form of witchcraft outlawed in Tainui, the iwi to which Janet Moses’ maternal family belongs. Belief in it remains only in pockets, he said.

Consultant forensic psychiatrist and Maori mental health specialist Rees Tapsell explained what had happened as group hysteria. It could happen in times of high emotional stress involving lack of sleep and isolation, he said.

Massey University lecturer Heather Kavan, who specialises in world religions, said although the case might be perceived as a Maori cultural issue, “the things people were experiencing have been noticed in many countries across the world as possession trance experiences”.

Crop circles – Solved!

Wallabies are eating opium poppies and creating crop circles as they hop around, says Tasmania attorney general Lara Giddings (BBC News, 25 June).

Reporting to a parliamentary hearing on security for Australia’s poppy crops, which supply about 50 percent of the world’s legally-grown opium, Ms Giddings said there was a problem with wallabies entering poppy fields, getting “as high as a kite” and going around in circles.

“Then they crash,” she said.

Eve bites off too much

Ian Wishart is one of New Zealand’s more prominent creationists. In a recent book he takes on evolutionary biology, a task for which he seems ill-equipped.

In his latest book, Eve’s Bite (2007), Investigate magazine managing editor Ian Wishart has a chapter titled The Beagle Boys (sub-titled Darwinism’s last stand). In it he again attacks the well established edifice of organic evolution. He heads the chapter with a quote from Ann Coulter’s Godless: The Church of Liberalism, which is worthwhile reproducing here in full because it clearly reflects the key elements of Wishart’s (false) assessment of the scientific status of evolution:

Liberal’s creation myth is Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, which is about one notch above Scientology in scientific rigor. It’s a make-believe story, based on a theory that is a tautology, with no proof in the scientist’s laboratory or the fossil record – and that’s after 150 years of very determined looking. We wouldn’t still be talking about it but for the fact that liberals think evolution disproves God.

Are Ann Coulter and Ian Wishart right? Is evolution a myth based on a tautology (the theory of natural selection)? Does evolution lack proof in the laboratory or in the fossil record? Does it disprove God?

The theory of natural selection (defined as “survival of the fittest”), claim anti-evolutionists, is a tautology because it is merely saying those who are fittest are the ones that survive. However, this is not how most biologists now view the term ‘fittest’. In brief, the fittest organisms are the ones possessing heritable features that enable them to leave the most offspring in a particular environment, physical and biological. In other words, there are criteria of fitness that are independent of survival.

Much of the confusion perpetrated by anti-evolutionists emanates from a too-simplistic notion of natural selection. “Survival of the fittest” is best regarded as a shorthand for a complex process. (Incidentally, it is Herbert Spencer’s phrase, not Darwin’s, although Darwin did eventually incorporate it into later editions of the Origin.) In fact, the theory of natural selection is far from being tautologous. For example, it can lead to testable hypotheses (predictions) relating to particular traits. As one evolutionist, Jason Rosenhouse, has observed, “there is nothing tautological about saying…that moths possessing dark coloration will be less visible than light colored moths to predatory birds when resting on dark-colored trees.” If the theory of natural selection is a mere tautology, supplementary testable hypotheses such as this one would be non-existent. Most importantly, regardless of how evolution has occurred, the evidence for it is overwhelming.

Evidence for the process, derived from laboratory observations and experiments, emanates from several fields of research, such as comparative anatomy (from an examination of fossil and extant organisms), embryology, molecular biology and genetics.

As for the fossil record, it is a treasure trove of evidence that evolution has occurred. Not only does it reveal morphological and other details of numerous creatures from the past, it also shows an overall pattern of similarity pointing to the reality of descent with modification. In addition, numerous transitional forms have been discovered (see below).

Naturalism

Does evolution disprove God? It is important to realise, in the current context, that biologists in doing science are practising methodological naturalism, so that supernatural explanations, because they are empirically non-testable, can have no role to play in science; they are scientifically worthless. Therefore the accusation by anti-evolutionists that evolutionists are deliberately atheistic (that in promoting evolution they are intentionally promoting atheism) is unwarranted. In fact, not all evolutionists are atheists.

It comes as no surprise, given her take on evolution, that Coulter, a lawyer and a conservative columnist, has drawn on what she calls “the generous tutoring” of intelligent design (ID) luminaries, Michael Behe, David Berlinski and William Dembski. If she genuinely wishes to learn something about evolution, the last people she should seek help from are ID proponents. In quoting Coulter, Wishart has set the tone and the level of argument of his chapter attacking evolution.

Wishart has adopted a familiar strategy used by anti-evolutionists in general – quoting eminent scientists purporting to be demonstrating that evolution itself is in crisis. It’s not, of course, but let’s see how he tries to convince his readers that it is, and that intelligent design is the only logical successor to an apparently discredited scientific theory.

But first, a point of clarification. It is necessary to distinguish between Darwin’s theory of descent with modification, establishing the reality of the process, and his theory of natural selection. The distinction is important because, almost invariably, scientists are quoted by anti-evolutionists questioning aspects of theories relating to the mechanism(s) of evolution. But it suits Wishart (and others) to convey the impression that evolution itself is in serious doubt in scientific circles (hence his subheading: “Darwinism’s last stand”).

A passage by Niles Eldridge (American Museum of Natural History), a prominent opponent of ID creationism, extracted from his 1995 book, Reinventing Darwin (p. 95), according to Wishart, is supposed to demonstrate “the lack of fossil support” for evolution. It reads in part as follows:

No wonder paleontologists shied away from evolution for so long. It never seems to happen. Assiduous collecting yields…the very slight accumulation of change-over millions of years, at a rate too slow to really account for all the prodigious change that has occurred in evolutionary history. When we do see the introduction of evolutionary novelty, it usually shows up with a bang, and often with no firm evidence that the organisms did not evolve elsewhere! Yet that’s how the fossil record has struck many a forlorn paleontologist looking to learn something about evolution.

On the face of it, pretty damning comment surely? To understand what really concerns Eldridge we need to consider the above passage in context. It appears in a chapter devoted to a discussion of the Eldridge/Gould concept of punctuated equilibria which, as Eldridge himself describes it, “is a melding, in essence, of the pattern of stasis [as revealed in the fossil record] with the recognition that most evolutionary change seems bound up with the origin of new species-the process of speciation.” By ‘stasis’ is meant the tendency for species not to change very much, often over millions of years. Long periods of stasis (or stability) are punctuated by shorter periods of comparatively rapid change, the process of speciation. Because of its somewhat short duration (geologically speaking) in small populations on the outskirts of an ancestral species’ range, the chance of recording a speciation ‘event’ in the record of the rocks is substantially reduced.

Two points to note here. Eldridge is not denying the reality of evolutionary change-that new species and groups arise over time through the influence, essentially, of natural selection. What Eldridge and Gould have brought to the attention of fellow evolutionists is that it is possible to reconcile what palaeontologists have observed in the fossil record, in Eldridge’s words “its gappiness, and uncertainties about where its fossilized animals and plants might have come from”, with how species originate over time. This reconciliatory theory brings into question the view of gradual (imperceptible) change over eons of time in the production of new species. Most importantly, the theory of punctuated equilibria is very much concerned with rates of change, the tempo of evolution.

To repeat, what it does not bring into question is the reality of evolution itself. This is not the place, nor is it necessary, to discuss the merits or otherwise of punctuated equilibria theory or of phyletic gradualism. What the theory has done (going back to Eldredge’s statement quoted above) is show that palaeontologists do have a role to play in the elucidation of the mechanisms and patterns of evolutionary change. And we should not overlook the role long played by palaeontologists in the discovery and painstaking excavation and preparation of numerous fossils that have provided such a rich lode of evidence for the ‘fact’ of evolution.

Transitional fossils

Which brings us to Wishart’s take on the subject of transitional fossils as evidence for evolution. There aren’t any, he contends, among the 250,000 fossil species now identified and catalogued: “Nowhere, are there fossils that show a weasel-cat, or a deer-giraffe, or any other of the alleged half-breed species said to have existed. In fact, a search of the literature on giraffe evolution has failed to find a single example of a short-necked giraffe at all. The long ones just suddenly appeared.”

Let’s briefly examine each of these examples. First the ‘weasel-cat’. Weasels and cats belong to different families within the mammalian Order Carnivora (Mustelidae and Felidae respectively). Should we expect these two families to be linked by a transitional ‘weasel-cat’? Well, no. The fossil and morphological evidence together point to separate ancestral groups among the earlier carnivores. What about a deer-giraffe link? Such a link between the Cervidae and Giraffidae is conceivable, but the inter-relationships of these two families are not firmly established. The apparent absence of such a link in the fossil record does not, of course, rule out a possible future discovery.

Is Wishart correct? Is there no example of a short-necked giraffe fossil? Here Wishart really comes to grief. He couldn’t have searched very far. Here is what Prothero (New Scientist, 1 March 2008) has to say: “Most fossil giraffes looked more like the short-necked okapi, a shy white-and-brown-striped denizen of the African rain forests, and the only other living giraffid.” More recently, a fossil giraffe has been described from the late Miocene and early Pliocene. “Its neck is a perfect intermediate between the short-neck ancestors and their long-neck descendants.”

Wishart somewhat sarcastically refers to “half-breeds”. However, “half-breed” is best regarded as an offensive term pertaining to a person whose parents are of different ‘races’. The term has nothing whatever to do with transitional or intermediate forms. In fact, the fossil record contains numerous examples of transitional forms, between species and between higher groups.

Before we leave the subject of transitional fossils, a brief word about whale evolution. Wishart continues to ignore the impressive fossil evidence-a series of forms beginning with a semi-aquatic predator (Pakicetus), probably derived from the hippo-pig lineage of artiodactyls, and ending with modern whales.

The Cambrian Explosion

He again raises what is colloquially called the Cambrian explosion. The Cambrian period saw the first appearance in the fossil record of many of the major phyla of multi-cellular animals. Naturally, creationists like to take ‘explosion’ literally, depicting this period as a time of sudden or instant creation, and hence supporting the creationist scenario. (The fact that many groups preceded them, and many have arisen subsequently, seems not to concern them!) It was nothing of the sort. In brief, new groups appeared in the Cambrian over tens of millions of years. One of the chief reasons for the variety of new fossils during this period is clearly the arrival of hard-shelled invertebrates conducive to fossilisation.

There are many more examples of misconceptions and distortions about evolution in Wishart’s chapter, too numerous to expose here. The key message to take away from this critique: if you decide to read Ian Wishart or Ann Coulter on evolution, or any other ID proponent on the same subject, keep a salt cellar handy!

For previous critiques of Ian Wishart on evolution, see NZ Skeptic, winter 2002; summer 2003.

Recommended additional reading: Donald R. Prothero (2007). Evolution. What the Fossils Say and Why It Matters. Columbia University Press, New York.