A good excuse for a party

FEBRUARY 12 is Charles Darwin’s 200th birthday, and the old guy, or at least his ideas, are still in pretty good shape. While evolutionary theory has been broadened and elaborated extensively in the 150 years since The Origin of Species was published in 1859, Darwin’s fundamental concept of natural selection remains central to our understanding of life’s diversity. New Scientist noted that 2009 is also the 400th anniversary of Galileo’s first use of the telescope, and used this as an excuse to ask a panel of eight whether Galileo or Darwin had done more to knock man off his pedestal. Opinion was divided, but Darwin was favoured by a small majority. One comment in the introduction by Michael Brooks was that Galileo has had more impact in the long term. His rationale for saying this was that far more people believe the Earth goes round the sun than believe people are descended from animals via natural selection, with the figures in the US being 80 percent and 50 percent respectively. Perhaps this is just a

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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.

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.

A very merry unbirthday

“There are three hundred and sixty-four days when you might get un-birthday presents and only one for birthday presents, you know.”

A quotation is always a useful heading to an article, and one from ‘Alice’ always lends an air of paradox and profundity.

Christchurch Skeptics, and some fellow-travellers, met recently to celebrate TWO birthdays; Charles Darwin (12 February 1809) and the New Zealand Skeptics (NZCSICOP) (6 February 1986). As a gesture from youth to age our function was held closer to the twelfth than the sixth; on the evening of Saturday, 11 February (an UNbirthday?) at the Cotswold Hotel.

In addition to the usual aids to eating, the tables were lent a skeptical air with cards carrying Darwinian/Skeptical quotes selected by chair-entity Vicki Hyde and some pseudoscientific baubles made by myself. Large jugs of gin (homeopathic, 30C), irreducibly complex bacterial flagella for lashing evolutionists, magnifying glasses for seeking answers in Genesis, pyramids for sharpening razor blades and brains, and magnets to be carried in male trouser pockets (cheaper than viagra). The door between the Kitchen and the dining Tables became the K/T boundary, with dinosaurs on one side and chickens on the other. The toast “Charles Darwin” was proposed by our chair-entity, and the meal then began with (what else?) primordial soup. The dinner then proceeded on its usual course with much conviviality.

Despite the late hour, the after-dinner address by Denis Dutton held the gathering’s attention to the end. ‘Darwinian Aesthetics: what Evolution tells us about the Nature of Art’ described how some eminent and ardent evolutionists resisted the application of Darwin’s ideas to human behaviour and social structures, yet such an extension of evolutionary principles explains much about us. Four hundred generations of urban living have not obliterated eighty thousand generations as hunter gatherers, so people in all present day cultures find most pleasing the type of landscape in which our distant ancestors developed. Dr Dutton gave a number of other examples relating our ideas of beauty and ugliness to ancestral behaviours of selective advantage. Blame for the poor peacock’s caudal load lies firmly with the peahen; one example among many of sexual selection.

After a brief question and answer session, our chair-entity thanked the speaker and declared the Darwinday Dinner ended.

The success of the evening was due to the hard work of our Get-things-done Secretary. Thank you, Claire!


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