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).


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.

The great downunder creationism takeover

A strange transformation has overtaken the murky world of the creationists. This article is based on a presentation to the 2007 NZ Skeptics Conference.

Creationism has always been primarily an American phenomenon. But something strange has happened in the creationist world over the last decade or so. While the US remains its heartland, a small but highly active group of Australians have seized control of large sections of the movement. Now, with the creationist movement worldwide growing and fragmenting, a situation has arisen in which two factions, both headed by Australians, have become enmeshed in a vicious battle for what has become a global, multi-million dollar industry.

Although creationism is of course an ancient concept, it was only in the second half of the 20th century that it really arose as an organised movement, actively opposing the spread of evolutionary ideas. Today it comes in many flavours-there are Old Earth creationists, who are happy to accept that the Earth may be millions of years old, and may have a history which includes eras not mentioned in scripture. And of course there’s Intelligent Design, which claims to set aside any biblical presuppositions, and simply argues that because life is so complicated, it must have a designer. Here I’ll mostly be discussing Young Earth Creationism, which is the brand seen most commonly in this country, and arguably the most vociferously promoted worldwide.

The modern creationist movement is generally held to have begun with the publication of The Genesis Flood, by John Whitcomb and Henry Morris, in 1961, the first widely published work to present the stories of Genesis as if they were scientifically credible. Morris would go on to be one of the founders of the Creation Science Research Center in 1970, before splitting to form the Institute for Creation Research in 1972. The ICR would for many years be the pre-eminent creationist organisation.

Going global

Elsewhere in the world, creationism was operating on a much smaller scale. There were early glimmerings in New Zealand when Dr Tony Hanne, an Auckland GP and obstetrician, invited Henry Morris to undertake a speaking tour here after reading The Genesis Flood. Over the next decade or so there were a few more tours by creationists, including Morris’s colleague at the ICR, Duane Gish, in 1975. (Gish made a presentation at our school when I was in the sixth form-I credit him with convincing me once and for all that creationism had no scientific credibility.)

But if the creationist candle was kept alight through the 70s in New Zealand largely through the efforts of a few individuals and very occasional overseas visitors, Australia was developing a significant home-grown movement. Credit for this development goes to three Queenslanders, who are still very active, as we shall see.

The one with the highest profile today is Ken Ham, who began giving creationist addresses in 1976 while still working as a science teacher. In 1979 he dedicated himself full-time to his creationism advocacy work, drawing no salary and relying on the support of family and friends. Working from home with his wife Mally, he ran two ministries-Creation Science Supplies, which distributed creationist books, and Creation Science Educational Media Services, which concentrated on teaching resources.

Also at about this time, general practitioner Dr Carl Wieland founded the Creation Science Association, and began publishing a small magazine, Ex Nihilo (‘Out of Nothing’). Ham and Wieland joined forces in 1980 to form the Creation Science Foundation; Wieland then handed over the running of the magazine to Ham, and to the third of our key players, John Mackay, who became editor. The magazine’s name was changed to Creation Ex Nihilo; in time it would become just plain Creation.

For several years these three worked harmoniously together, building up their business and establishing a management framework. The first significant hiccup came in 1986, when their financial records showed a loss of $92,363. This came about because one of their directors, John Thallon, had invested interest-free loans from members, along with a substantial sum of his own money, in a company that re-invested it fraudulently. Their rank-and-file members were not informed until the Australian Skeptics went through their books and brought the loss to widespread attention.

But that incident was nothing compared to what happened the following year. Margaret Buchanan, a widow in her early 40s, was working as Ken Ham’s personal secretary and appears to have been well-liked and respected. But in 1987 John Mackay announced that he had discovered, by a process of what he called “spiritual discernment”, that Margaret Buchanan was a servant of Satan. Specifically he accused her of being:

“… an ‘angel of the devil’… the literal incarnation of Jezebel … a broomstick riding, cauldron-stirring witch … a frequent attender of seances and satanic orgies; a witch with the ability to invade both inanimate objects … and animate objects (at least one dog and one cat-and even John himself) with [her] own personal demons.”

Her supporters have also stated that Mackay insisted “that Margaret had claimed to have had intercourse with the corpse of her late husband”!

Mackay then gave CSF an ultimatum-either she goes or I go. Ham stood by Buchanan, as did Wieland, who later married her.

John Mackay was left with no option but to form his own organisation, also based in Brisbane, which he called Creation Research. You can find him on the web at creationresearch.net, not to be confused with creationresearch.org, which is the website of the Creation Research Society, a small American group. Creationists often remind me of the Judean liberation organisations in Monty Python’s Life of Brian-the People’s Front of Judea, always at war with the Judean People’s Front and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Judea. Keeping track of all these different groups is not easy-and it’s about to get even messier.

CSF spreads its wings

Ken Ham also made a move in 1987, going to work on secondment for the ICR in the US. He stayed there until 1994, then left to found a US branch of the Creation Science Foundation. Since, in the US, a foundation is a body that hands out money, and CSF didn’t do that, he had to change the name. He first called it Creation Science Ministries, but predictably there was already a group with that title, so he adopted the name Answers in Genesis.

Also in 1994, CSF opened an office in New Zealand. It and the Australian, UK, Canadian and South African branches adopted the Answers in Genesis brand in 1997. The UK branch is now the biggest creationist organisation in that country.

The local branch, currently headed by former lawyer, drug education officer and fireman Adrian Bates, operates out of Tony Hanne’s 1.5 ha waterfront property on Bleakhouse Rd in Howick, Auckland. Dr Hanne runs a bible school and youth camp from here, although in 2003 he was subject to an enforcement action by the local council for running a bible college in breach of his resource consent and the council’s district plan. Presumably this issue is now resolved.

Linking and Feeding

Meanwhile in Australia, Carl Wieland was proving himself to be a good business manager and a master strategist. Rather than taking on the educational and scientific establishments head-on, as the American creationists had tended to do, Wieland focused on creating and developing a grass-roots creationist organisation (see NZ Skeptic 45). He did this primarily by making connections with church groups through public meetings, and today his operation holds more than 100 such meetings around Australia every year, and several in New Zealand. Adrian Bates and occasionally other local speakers engage in speaking tours, and there are usually two or three visitations annually from across the Tasman, although the last year or two have been fairly quiet on the touring front, perhaps because, as we shall see, they have other things to think about.

I have attended a few of these events, one of them addressed by Wieland himself (in person he comes across as intelligent, thoughtful, and quietly competent-quite unlike Ham and Mackay, who both have a fanatic’s gleam in their eyes). And at these meetings, they sell their books and videos, and hand around forms on which people can subscribe to their magazines. Once those links are made, they feed material out into the community, which they urge people to spread as widely as they can.

Their main instrument, Creation Magazine, comes out quarterly, and has very high production values. They also have a “peer-reviewed” journal-it’s peer-reviewed by other creationists-which again has had several name changes, but is currently called the Journal of Creation.

The big split

So the decades since the 1980s have been interesting times for the creationism movement in this part of the world. But things have gotten really interesting in the last five years. As Australian skeptic Roger Stanyard (http://www.noanswersingenesis.org/aig_inherit_windbags.htm) has put it, Carl Wieland and Ken Ham don’t appear to be buddies any more.

It seems in part this has to do with AiG-Australia’s adoption of this notion of peer review. The issue is highlighted in an anonymous article on an obscure website lambasting AiG’s strategy; Stanyard managed to discover the author was John Mackay, of all people. In summary, AiG would urge anyone producing creationist material to send it to them, and they would, for a substantial fee, critique it and make any changes deemed necessary for the work to be scientifically credible. (Yes, they really do think this is achievable.) If the authors refused, AiG would publish and distribute negative reviews of the work. In effect, Mackay is accusing AiG of extortion.

AiG-Australia also developed a web page pointing out arguments it urges creationists not to use (http://creationontheweb.com/content/view/2996/), for example the claim that Darwin recanted on his deathbed, or that the rotted carcass of a plesiosaur was fished out of the water off the coast of New Zealand in 1977. Quite correctly, they say it was almost certainly a basking shark.

Ken Ham, however, has rejected this approach, and is much more prepared to trot out any argument which supports the creationist position. I sometimes wonder what’s going to happen if Wieland and company ever realise that all creationist arguments are flawed. I suspect Ham has the correct instincts for long-term creationist survival.

The peer review issue is just the beginning though. In 2004 Carl Wieland criticised the way the US branch was run, and Ken Ham appears to have taken offence. The following year the US and UK ministries announced their desire to operate autonomously, and not to be subject to the peer review system. Most of what follows is based on material from the Australian group’s website. They’ve adopted a strategy of being very open in telling their side of the story, while the American group has played things much closer to their chests. So this account may be rather one-sided. But it mostly seems plausible, and is backed by a lot of documentation. This material is not easy to stumble across on their website, but Jim Lippard, a long-time creationism-watcher in the US, found it and linked to it on his blog (http://lippard.blogspot.com). The Australian group’s expressed concerns were about the way Ken Ham dominated the ministry and spent money on his fellow executives, and his shift away from delivering the creationist message to raising donations. He has very much, in other words, adopted the modus operandi of many of the evangelists in his adopted country.

Memorandum of Agreement

According to the material on the Australian group’s website, in October 2005 the Australian directors, without the knowledge of Carl Wieland and the rest of the Australian management, were induced to fly to the US to sign a Memorandum of Agreement setting forth the terms of the separation. The memorandum had been drafted by the US group’s attorneys, and was entirely favourable to them. Once it was signed, the Australian directors resigned en masse, under condition that they be given indemnity for their actions, then joined the US board in Kentucky. One of them was John Thallon, who had lost the $92,363 back in 1986.

The MOA was a beautiful piece of work. It hands over to the US group perpetual licence for all articles published in Creation magazine and the Journal of Creation, which are produced in Australia, including the right to modify articles and change the names of the authors. It also includes a false statement that the authors have given permission for this. If anyone sues the US group for copyright infringement, the Australian group is to pay all costs. And all costs for items are to be set by the US group, which promptly trebled the prices it charged the Australian group for DVDs and other material.

Another magazine

The following year the Americans dropped their publishing agreement on Creation magazine, and attempted to start their own magazine under the same title. Their attempted theft of the Creation name failed, and in 2006 they released their first issue of a new magazine under the title Answers. The 35,000 US Creation subscribers were told they could be “upgraded” to the new magazine, or have their money refunded. They were not given the option of remaining with the Australian magazine, in fact its continued existence was not even mentioned! Recently AiG have also launched their own “peer-reviewed” Answers Research Journal.

And so, in March 2006, having had the rug well and truly pulled out from under them, AiG-Australia rebranded as Creation Ministries International, along with the NZ, Canadian and South African ministries. Later that year, AiG-US began sending speakers on tours of Australia; CMI now run tours in the US, and have opened branches there and in the UK. The two groups are now in direct competition for the creationist dollar. Ken Ham appears to have set aside his former contretemps with John Mackay, and is using him as AiG’s man on the ground in Australia until they get their own structure up and running in that country. Which is why CMI have posted all the background information on the Margaret Buchanan Affair-they want their supporters to understand the sort of guy Mackay is. Legal proceedings have now been initiated by CMI, accusing AiG of deceptive conduct, and seeking damages.

High finance

Jim Lippard has posted a series of reports on creationist finances which give an indication of the money involved. The most recent Inland Revenue declaration (Form 990) from Answers in Genesis-US, for the first half of 2005, indicates the organisation had revenues for the year close to US$11 million, and net assets of $11,673,847. With the recent completion of their Creation Museum in Kentucky, reputedly valued at $27 million, funded entirely from donations, this figure is now likely to be substantially higher. Ken Ham’s salary is around $120,000, with tens of thousands more in benefits and expenses, not bad for a resident of a state where median household incomes are about $40,000 (all figures in US dollars).

The ICR meanwhile, once the biggest by far of all the creationist organisations, is languishing. Andrew Snelling, who has been one of their recent stars, and one of the few creationists with a genuine geology degree (he has published in the mainstream literature, keeping his beliefs under wraps), has recently gone to work for AiG as the Research Journal editor. It hardly needs to be said that he’s another Australian. The ICR’s revenue and expenses in 2005 were both a little over $4,000,000 (revenue slightly ahead of expenses), and they had net assets of $5,228,062.

CMI, despite the best efforts of AiG, don’t seem to be doing too badly either. They opened a new headquarters building in Brisbane, in 2007. Again, it’s funded entirely by donations, and they own it freehold. John Mackay is a regular visitor to the UK, and comes to New Zealand every couple of years, giving talks and leading so-called geology field trips, but his organisation on the ground here seems to be very much part-time. He does have a few supporters, though. His website claims a couple of them have opened a creation museum in Dannevirke, although it’s hard to find much independent information on this-it sounds like it’s just a few fossils and rocks.

Christianity in New Zealand is currently in decline-55.6 percent of those who answered the religion question in the 2006 census identified as Christian, compared to 60.6 percent in 2001. But the devil is in the details. Pentecostalists have increased over that period to 79,155 from 39,228, which was 55 percent higher than the census before. There are also good numbers of Baptists, and quite a few Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons. We seem to be seeing a polarisation of New Zealand society on religious matters-more moving away from any religious belief (about 1.3 million stated they had no religion), but a rapidly growing though still small percentage who insist on the literal truth of every word of the Bible. If they spent less energy fighting among themselves, their numbers could be even higher.

A Little Light Reading

Jim Ring finds some material to pass the time on a recent flight.

Queensland is the home of young-earth creationism in Australia so it was perhaps not surprising that I found Creation Magazine for sale in the Brisbane airport. None of the other four Australian airports we visited displayed it. Curiosity overcame my reluctance to provide money for their cause.

This was volume 27 but I feel sure it has not been running for 27 years in this format. “Peer reviewed by leading creationary (sic) experts”. As there are no adverts there is no legal necessity for listing the numbers of copies sold or estimated readership. I would like to know these figures.

The cover picture with a caption “DINGO: Australia’s Wild Native Dog” suggested a wild-life theme and the glossy cover was just like hundreds of other magazines on the rack. However a few key words-fossil, God, Darwin, massive flood, evolution, suggested otherwise. Not to mention the web page address for Answers in Genesis (branches outside of the US have recently re-branded themselves as Creation Ministries International-ed.).

With all the present attention on Intelligent Design it is worth reminding ourselves that young-earth creationists are still very much around.

A letter page called Feedback (borrowed from New Scientist?) gives some indication of the readership. A letter from Lower Hutt thinks pet budgies prove a creator. I cannot quite follow the argument but apparently teaching one to say “Hello, God made me” is important.

The editorial attacks other publications-National Geographic, Time, and Scientific American, because they do not take creationist views seriously. I imagine these editors are trembling in their shoes. In contrast the editor remembers a young farmer who said, “When I drive around the countryside I see evidence for Noah’s flood everywhere.”

A number of news items taken (with acknowledgment) from New Scientist, Science, Nature, etc have the theme that new discoveries discredit science by proving that older ideas were wrong. If one believes that all answers lie in Genesis I suppose this is logical, but to me it is an entirely alien idea.

An article on UFOs and aliens surprised me but perhaps belief in a completely unsupportable worldview opens one’s mind to more nonsense. Some famous pictures described as “genuinely unexplained sightings” help to plug a book for AiG. This apparently links abductions with demonology, and shows how “belief in evolution has opened the door to alien visitations.” The book is claimed to provide answers for Christians puzzled by UFO phenomena.

The lead article on Dingoes is quite good until it gets to the historical problem. When did humans and dingoes actually arrive in Australia? Australians convinced that the earth is only about 6000 years old have huge problems in compressing their history to make it fit.

The second major article is on how the (Irish) Giant’s Causeway was produced by the biblical flood about 4500BP over a very short period. This is hilarious because it is obviously meant to be serious. The author is a staffer at AiG with a BSc (Hons) in geology and the article has references to recent geological articles and journals. However he brushes over the problem of geological dates with “Once we realise the dates assigned to the causeway are not measured, but just someone’s opinion, we can look at the evidence in a different light.” He is in agreement with modern opinion that the Causeway was produced by a huge eruption followed by a flood. However, according to Richard Fortey in The Earth: An Intimate History that flood was the opening of the Atlantic Ocean.

All this is benign but three pages of material towards the back are not. The headlines for three articles:

  • Darwin’s Impact-The Bloodstained Legacy of Evolution
  • Evolution and Social Evil
  • America’s Evolutionists: Hitler’s Inspiration?

-would disgrace any publication.

While A Timeline of Evolution Inspired Terror features Karl Marx, Leon Trotsky, Joseph Stalin, Adolf Hitler, and Pol Pot. I am not sure how Mao escaped here but he is mentioned in the text. Somehow Darwin is responsible for the behaviour of these men.

This would be funny if it was not serious; it is a timely reminder that it is important to keep creationists out of schools.

The demon-haunted universe

Some people are skeptical about UFOs and alien abductions-but for all the wrong reasons.

Gary Bates is the latest in a long line of Australian creationists who have mounted tours of New Zealand since the early 1990s. Every year, speakers from Creation Ministries International (formerly Answers in Genesis, and before that the Creation Science Foundation) make the journey across the Tasman to address church halls full of the faithful on the importance of adhering to strict biblical literalism, and to distribute an ever-expanding catalogue of books, videos and magazine subscriptions. This strategy, dubbed ‘linking and feeding’ by CMI chief executive officer Carl Wieland (see NZ Skeptic 45), is quietly but very effectively establishing a broad-based creationist movement in this country, avoiding the largely unsuccessful head-on confrontations with the educational establishment which have characterised the creationist movement in the US. There are now several locally grown speakers on the circuit, groomed by the New Zealand branch of CMI from its base in Howick.

In October I was one of four local skeptics who attended a meeting addressed by Bates in Rotorua. He began with a reminder that their ministry was fully ‘faith-funded’, and urged his audience to support it by purchasing his merchandise during the intermission. This was to be a recurring theme throughout the night. A form was passed round on which people could subscribe to CMI’s Creation magazine; there were plenty of takers.

He then launched into the now-standardised CMI patter. We are engaged in a “War of the Worldviews”, he said, with our allegiances determined by where we think we came from. Morality is a Christian virtue, grounded in Genesis, and those who refuse to accept that book’s authority have no basis for ethical behaviour. This, he maintained, was the root cause of the modern world’s ills. We had a choice between accepting the words of men or the Word of God.

Well, no, actually. We can’t climb Mt Sinai and ask God Himself whether He wrote the Bible. We only have the word of men like Bates that He really is its author. So it comes down to making a choice as to which set of men one listens to.

Bates then turned to some of the alleged evidence against evolution-20-year-old fossilised felt hats, “unfossilised” T. rex bones containing red blood cells, complex geological structures formed in a matter of days at Mt St Helens, and the way dead fish float, rather than lying on the sea bed to be fossilised. None of this material was new, and space precludes a refutation of it all here, but I’ve appended some websites which cover it.

But Bates has a point of difference from other creationist speakers. He is the author of Alien Intrusion: UFOs and the Evolution Connection, and after the intermission (and more exhortations to purchase stuff) he outlined the book’s argument. In a nutshell, it is that life elsewhere in the universe does not exist, and that reported encounters with extraterrestrials, including UFO sightings and alien abductions, are actually the work of demons, who are on a “crash and burn” mission to bring down as many human souls as they can in order to spite God, in a cosmic war that began in Eden.

Ironically, there was some material that a skeptic could agree with. He did a fair job of explaining the sheer immensity of the universe and the difficulties that would confront any would-be space-farer wanting to visit our little blue dot, although some basic errors (the Hubble telescope in “geosynchronous” orbit, Proxima Centauri the closest galaxy) revealed a strictly limited knowledge of astronomy. But then he explained there couldn’t be any aliens to make the trip anyway, because the Bible said so. If aliens existed elsewhere, they would be under the curse of Adam. Since the Church is described as Christ’s bride through all eternity, and since Christian marriage is monogamous, he cannot have brides (ie churches) on other planets. Nor will he be crucified and raised again elsewhere, because his death and resurrection was for all of Creation. Many in the audience dutifully nodded at each of these points.

Belief in aliens is predicated on evolution, Bates says, and Lucifer is using this belief to mount a campaign based on deception. By creating apparitions of UFOs, he encourages people to doubt biblical truth, and by subjecting people to alien abduction experiences he spreads misery and sows confusion. In the past he has adopted other guises, says Bates. Among these were his appearances, disguised as an angel, to Muhammad and to Mormonism founder Joseph Smith.

His audience lapped it all up, although after almost two and a half hours some of the children were dozing off. Finally, he came to an end and the small skeptical contingent headed home for reviving hot chocolates. We didn’t buy anything.


T. rex bones: home.austarnet.com.au/stear/YEC_and_dino_blood.htm

Floating fish: home.austarnet.com.au/stear/fossil_foolishness.htm

Mount St Helens canyon: home.comcast.net/~fsteiger/grandcyn.htm

Rapid fossilisation: talkorigins.org/indexcc/CC/CC361.html

Other creationist arguments used by Bates and others: www.talkorigins.org/indexcc/list.html

Bomby: The creationists’ favourite beetle

A knockout blow for evolution turns out to be nothing of the sort

AS JBS Haldane famously said, God must have an inordinate fondness for beetles, he made so many of them. Of all the tens of thousands of the horny-winged horde, the creationists have chosen, as the absolute knockout anti-natural selection example, the bombardier beetle. Only the great Organic Chemist in the sky could have designed the chemical weapon system which enables this beetle to deal with ants and other predators.

The special feature is a sac containing a mixture of two chemicals, which do not react with each other spontaneously. When danger threatens the beetle is able to initiate changes in this mixture which cause it to be expelled explosively. The resulting missile is not only toxic and corrosive, but also, because of the heat generated by the reaction, it is boiling hot. Some species adopt a blunderbuss or scattergun method of discharging their weapon, others are even cleverer and can aim at their target like a marksman.

To understand why creationists have been so excited, and to follow the suggested evolutionary pathway leading to this phenomenon, we must look more closely at the chemistry of the process. The storage sac contains two substances, hydrogen peroxide and a relatively simple organic compound, quinol. The latter is oxidisable to quinone, but, although hydrogen peroxide is an oxidising agent, the two can coexist without reacting if left undisturbed. When danger threatens, the sac containing this mixture is emptied into a reaction chamber containing the enzymes catalase and peroxidase. The catalase decomposes the hydrogen peroxide almost instantaneously into water and oxygen, and the peroxidase causes it to react with the quinol, oxidising it to quinone. This in turn causes two things to happen; the heat released in this reaction raises the temperature to boiling point, and the sudden release of gaseous oxygen forces the liquid out with great force. In passing, we note that the creationists have the chemistry and sequence of the process wrong, but, as is their wont, they persevere in their error after being corrected.

Why have the creationists seized on this as a clincher for their belief? Well, it’s all so complicated, isn’t it? Quantities of two unusual chemicals, two enzymes, as well as the anatomical arrangements. Each is necessary, the system would not work if any one was missing. In modern creationist jargon, it is irreducibly complex. Therefore dear old Bomby must have been intelligently designed, mustn’t he? No. It ain’t necessarily so! A plausible sequence leading from a generalised arthropod to this specialised animal can be suggested. It nicely illustrates the way features with one function can be co-opted for other purposes, and demonstrates how small steps, each conferring a minute selective advantage, can lead eventually to large changes. We can note first that each of the four chemicals is not unusual, as claimed by creationists, but is a common constituent of arthropod metabolic systems. Quinone is made by numerous insects; it ‘tans’ the cuticle making the exoskeleton more or less rigid and dark in colour. Quinol may be synthesised by a similar route; it is not confined to bombardier beetles. Hydrogen peroxide is widespread in nature as a product of oxygen metabolism. Catalase and peroxidase are also found universally in the animal kingdom; oxygen, on which our life depends, is not an unmixed blessing, and these enzymes destroy dangerous by-products of oxygen metabolism (think anti-oxidants). Greater gene activity, leading to the biosynthesis of increasing amounts of these chemicals, seems an obvious pathway of natural selection. M Isaak (2003) has linked this process to the anatomical changes which would have taken place concurrently with the chemical developments. Each step in this scheme confers an obvious advantage and so would be selected for. Though the combination of features makes the bombardier beetle unique, individually they have counterparts in many other insects; for example, the secretory glands which produce the pheromones and other chemical signals. Isaak’s article discusses the issue in more detail, and is recommended (Isaak, M. Bombardier beetles and the Argument of Design www.talkorigins.org/faqs/bombadier).

This article was suggested by my reading The Bombardier Beetle’s Chemical Defence, by Marten J ten Hoor, Hoogezand, Netherlands, in CHEMNZ, no. 100. I am grateful to Mr ten Hoor and the editors of that journal for providing that stimulus.


In a decision which sets an important precedent for US science education, a court has ruled against the teaching of the theory of ‘Intelligent Design’ alongside Darwinian evolution (BBC, 20 December). The ruling comes after a group of parents in the Pennsylvania town of Dover had taken the school board to court for demanding biology classes not teach evolution as fact.

Continue reading


Efficacy of Prayer – an update

Since I wrote my piece (NZ Skeptic 75) based on Bruce Flamm’s article in Skeptical Inquirer concerning a research paper on the efficacy of prayer, Dr Flamm has reported ‘significant development’. Lest you jump to the conclusion that the authors, journal and university have acknowledged their serious error and have retracted the paper, be at once disabused. The significance of these developments, to my mind, is their minuscule and peripheral nature; nothing has really changed. One could reasonably grant a significant development to Wirth; he pleaded guilty to a 46-page indictment and is in jail for five years. Concerning the ‘lead’ author, Lobo, the journal later printed, at the bottom of the back page, an Erratum, that this name had been included ‘in error’. Young researchers often complain that senior colleagues insist on their names appearing on papers unjustifiably. In the topsy-turvy world of this journal, people find their names put unknowingly on papers they have had nothing to do with!

Despite never acknowledging any enquiries about this paper, and printing no comments, the author Cha was eventually given space for an extended, and misleading, response to the criticisms (which the readers knew of only from other sources).

The university set up a committee to investigate the research, but, on Dr Lobo withdrawing his name from the paper, disbanded the committee, saying it was no longer needed. So, despite all the unsavoury aspects of this matter, no one is admitting their mistake, and this nonsensical paper remains in the medical literature as ‘evidence’ of the efficacy of prayer.

Bernard Howard


Colour therapy – ’tis no puzzlement

Some weeks ago I met up with an old golfing friend I hadn’t seen in years. He was fit and well and is one of the few men I’ve ever met ageing better than I am. He is a retired mathematician with very good UK degrees, a solid skeptic, a fine golfer (handicap 8), down-to-earth and fun company. Another fellow, a man clearly unwell, whom I had also known as a professional colleague, accompanied us for the round. Afterwards, Roy and I caught up on the 28 years since we had worked in the same organisation and the topic of health arose. Our mutual friend, said Roy, had been given remission of his prostate cancer through colour therapy.

“Rubbish!” I responded. “Furthermore,” Roy continued, “I’ve used the process myself to alleviate the continuing effects of a bout of flu or bronchitis which I couldn’t shake off for months.” I demanded more information.

Roy then explained how, with some cynicism, he had been connected electrically to the colour-therapist’s machine for about six hours while the device operated with a strand of red-dyed material (wool?) in an electrically-charged stainless-steel cup. Afterwards, said Roy, his symptoms were gone and have not recurred. He roundly denied the placebo effect… A short while later, on another golf course, I met an old man practising chipping. After we got talking we discovered that we were both of a mind about the game, so played together a couple of times. Bob told me that he had recently recovered from a debilitating and life-threatening illness he’d contracted due to varnishing his house floor with a modern two-pot mixture. For two years he’d been in and out of hospital, talked to endless specialists and finally had begun to recover bodyweight when certain (unspecified) aspects of his diet were changed. I was invited to his home a little later and to my surprise discovered his wife is a colour therapist with a roomfull of equipment and walls covered with charts. At no time did Bob suggest his wife ever was able to give him relief using her machine or techniques.

What do I take from these admittedly flimsy accounts? The overwhelming thing I see is that alternate techniques are generally tried when all else has failed, by which time it is very likely that orthodox treatment is at last working in conjunction with that great healer, time.

Clive Shaw


Greenhouse Skeptics and Creationists no comparison

I am aware that the global warming subject has been ‘done to death’. However, the Keith Garratt item on skeptical environmentalism included several criticisms of my work which must be answered. In the interests of brevity, I will respond only to the most insulting (insulting to me as a skeptic).

He compares global warming skeptics to evolution skeptics. This is utter balderdash. Deniers of evolution are led by religious nutters. Global warming skepticism is led by climate scientists, and there are literally hundreds of professional climate researchers who have expressed their disquiet at the current paradigm.

Lance Kennedy

(And that really is the last word! -ed.)

Darwin and religion

Following the article by Alison Campbell in the Autumn 2005 Skeptic I got on to the Waikato University website and clicked ‘Darwin and Religion’ and was surprised to find a long article which completely failed to mention Darwin’s attitude to religion, or the difficulty in reconciling evolution with religious belief.

Darwin was an unusually honest scientist. He came to realise that human evolution was not essentially different from the evolution of any other creature, and that humans could not therefore claim the exclusive privilege of a supervising deity or of an afterlife. Only one of his scientific colleagues, Joseph Hooker, was prepared to support this view, and it was opposed by his wife and family. In Charles Darwin’s autobiography, published posthumously, his son Francis deleted the section on religion with the excuse:

“It will be easily understood that in a narrative of a personal and intimate kind written for his wife and children, passages should occur which must here be omitted; and I have not thought it necessary to indicate where such omissions are made.”

It was only in 1958 in the uncensored edition published by his granddaughter, Nora, Lady Barlow, that we were allowed to read Darwin’s true opinions on religion, which were as follows:

“I was very unwilling to give up my belief… But I found it more and more difficult to invent evidence to convince me. Thus disbelief crept over me at a very slow rate, but was at last complete.”

“…the constant inculcation in a belief in God on the minds of children producing so strong and perhaps an inherited effect on their brains not yet fully developed, that it would be as difficult for them to throw off their belief in God as for a monkey to throw off its instinctive fear and hatred of a snake.”

“I for one must be content to remain an Agnostic.”

In an interview with Edward Aveling in September 1881, the following retort took place:

Aveling: “‘Agnostic’ is but ‘Atheist’ writ respectable.”

Darwin: “‘Atheist’ is but ‘Agnostic’ writ aggressive.”

Many people have sought to distort Darwinism to remove Darwin’s insistence that man is just another animal. The most influential was Julian Huxley in his Evolution: The Modern Synthesis (1942) who claimed that humans were ‘different’ and ‘unique’; so, presumably, qualifying them for divine guidance, life after death, and dominion over all other organisms.

Vincent Gray