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“Sir, I don’t believe in evolution.” IV. Teaching evolution and science literacy.

In practice, this question will rarely be coming out of the mouth of an A level Biology student.  Logically, someone who is adamant about the falsity or unacceptability of evolutionary theory would be unlikely to chose to delve further into the scientific evidence for evolution by going beyond GCSE.  So the defence of evolution and by extension the nature of science, in the classroom, would in any case be a limited one. How complex an argument can you give to a 16 year old?

It would be nice if someone did a survey of attitudes to evolution / creationism throughout secondary school in the UK (and anywhere else) in order to establish when the resistance develops.

The conscientious biology teacher,  confronted with a 16 year old who doesn’t ‘believe in evolution’ will want to give some sort of answer.  The Welcome Trust Big Picture on Evolution (Issue 5 January 2007 – available on paper by order 2-20 £1 each/ >20 75p each) would be a handy crib-sheet for the hard-pressed teacher, because it deals with different religions’ attitudes to evolution. For example, it explains that Muslims do not generally contest evolution of species but that  ‘Adam having evolved from apes that is a bone of contention’. Clearly, if  it was a Christian or Jehovah’s Witness expressing the doubt then the fact that Muslims, Buddhists and Christians have slightly different objections might help.  The teacher would need to know enough to be able to grasp that the Christian creationist view is different from the Witnesses’ one, in certain respects.

There is a simplified section on the remit of science in the Welcome Foundation article which is a first line of defence. But as I said in a previous Evolution vs. Creation post, it would seem sensible to ask the doubter what in particular about evolutionary theory is objected to before launching into a comprehensive scientific defence.

The reality is that a 15 0r 16 year old (unless of exceptional intelligence) is not  going to be able to deal with (or want to take on board) the whole gamut of any refutation of creationism.  15 Answers to Creationist Nonsense from Scientific American, is excellent,  but too advanced for this age group.   Pity about the undiplomatic title.  Wonder of Richard Dawkins wrote it?

Laurence Moran’s short article, The Modern Synthesis of Genetics and Evolution, from, if not completely understood by such a student, at least shows that evolutionary theory has moved on from Darwin’s original formulation and uses a wider range of evidence.

Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution, by Theodosius Dobzhansky, originally published in The American Biology Teacher, March 1973 (35:125-129), is clearly not for a 16 year old either, but it is a sustained argument and has key passages that could be used to good effect.

Introduction to Evolutionary Biology, also from TalkOrigins, is exactly what the  teacher needs to have at finger tip all the arguments.

There are two other things. (1) What students read for themselves online about creationism/ID (2) Going beyond evolution vs. Creationism into science literacy in general.

(1) There are  many  sensible website which discuss the issue but (1), as an example, what happens if a 16 year old biology student choses to read Nonsense Reasons for Rejecting Intelligent Design which comes from the website Evident Creation.  For a student to decide what is sense and nonsense here, a certain amount of  background of  knowledge about evolutionary biology is essential. Even an adult of reasonable education might be momentarily taken in.

There are a range of new courses which are geared to science literacy, such as 21 Century Science at GCSE and  Science for Society at GCE AS and A2.

September 30, 2008 Posted by | general | , , , | Leave a comment

“Sir, I don’t Believe in Evolution.” III. So, how is evolution taught?

Michael Reiss while still Director of Education at the Royal Society wrote to The telegraph on 16 September, 2008:

Sir – Your report of my views on creationism’s place in education (September 12) could be interpreted as suggesting that creationism and evolution should be given equal weight and both taught as science.

Creationism has no scientific basis. However, when young people ask questions about creationism in science classes, teachers need to be able to explain why evolution is recognised as the best explanation for the history of life on Earth.

They should also take the time to explain how science works and why, based on all the available evidence, creationism is simply not science.

Rev Professor Michael Reiss, The Royal Society London SW1

It would be useful to know both what teachers themselves think and how exactly evolution is taught.

Two surveys on science teachers attitudes to creationism:

Many high school teachers still teach creationism [U.S.]

Creationism should be taught in science lessons, say teachers [u.k.]

Teaching evolution to the converted is a  report of a survey of sixth form students carried by Simon Underdown of the Anthropology Department of Brooke’s University

… test was whether I can assume that students come equipped with a critical faculty developed during A levels or must we, as lecturers, take on the role of instilling that critical faculty rather than merely developing it? Is it enough to teach evolution or should we be addressing why creationism/ID is wrong? If we did this, it would mean a shift in how evolution is taught and would move us towards actively taking on the creationists and pulling apart their arguments rather than just assuming students can see the flaws inherent in the creationists’ arguments.

An example of what happens in a U.S. High school classroom, widely memed in the web:

A Teacher on the Front Line as Faith and Science Clash

NYT 23 August 2008

David Campbell switched on the overhead projector and wrote “Evolution” in the rectangle of light on the screen.

He scanned the faces of the sophomores in his Biology I class. Many of them, he knew from years of teaching high school in this Jacksonville suburb, had been raised to take the biblical creation story as fact. His gaze rested for a moment on Bryce Haas, a football player who attended the 6 a.m. prayer meetings of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes in the school gymnasium.

“If I do this wrong,” Mr. Campbell remembers thinking on that humid spring morning, “I’ll lose him.”

It’s the American experience but British teachers could learn from this. As many including John Hawks have pointed out, Mickey Mouse is not an example of evolution.

Note mention in the NYT article of  “Ten questions to ask your biology teacher about evolution”.      { 2 }

A classroom exercise (undergraduate level but could be adapted) :

Case Teaching Notes for “Equal Time for Intelligent Design?  An Intimate Debate Case” by Clyde Freeman Herreid, Department of Biological Sciences, University at Buffalo, State University of New York

A paper on the topic:

The Evolution Solution – Teaching Evolution Without Conflict [pdf]

Why teach Evolution? from The National Center for Science Education.

and a post, Why teach Evolution,  in a blog  which gives a some up-to-date reasons.


The really elaborate online evolution courses are American, which is probably in part a reflection of the greater need for the effective teaching of evolution in the face of stiff resistance from creationism and  ID. In other words, they are having to re-double their efforts to make evolution coherent.  In the end this will benefit understanding of evolution and what science is and does.

We in the UK have the National Curriculum and ‘national’ subject syllabuses. Text books are written tightly to the syllabuses. When the syllabus changes so does the text book.

Checking the syllabuses for how they tackle evolution is not fun.  One way to do it is to follow through the nit-picking approach of Truth in science, a site which tries to sow the seeds of doubt about the theory of evolution, and the evidence for it, by such things as trawling through the national curriculum and GCSE syllabuses in great detail to find inconsistencies and lack of clarity.

This is the TiS page on Edexcel A/ AS Biology. You can move back and forward from this point looking at their comments on other syllabuses.

TiS also has pages on Evidence for Evolution and Science Lesson Plans for GCSE, including one on Irreducible Complexity. By pointing them out I’m not condoning them. They need to be examined carefully. Teacher are using their syllabuses, such as this 2003 AQA GCSE, and the text books designed to go with them, teaching in their own way. They are not using this stuff. But this is the sort of thing they are up against.

Truth in Science Material explains about the packs including DVD that went out to UK schools, which schools were then told not to use. The DVD, Where Does the Evidence lead?,  which was produced in the U.S. and distributed there, is reviewed (and its provence discussed) by Andrea Bottaro on behalf of Texas Citizens for Science in a letter to Texas science teachers and librarians.

The British Centre for Science Education has written comprehensively on the organisation Truth in Science.

Notice it’s called Truth in Science not Objectivity in Science!  This book review, What is Truth in Science?, starts with Pontius Pilates “What is truth?  It immediately points out he didn’t hang around to listen to the answer. This blurb of a Medawar Lecture given by Professor Peter Lipton, asks three important questions.

The Welcome Foundation have produced a 16 page booklet and pdf: Big Picture on Evolution, which tackles the non-science issues as well. it is has been sent to schools, but it would be useful in the home too. The the design and layout is like modern text books, but something can be lost by having to jump all over the page.

U.S. High school/undergraduate stuff includes:

Teaching about Evolution and the Nature of Science

Understanding Evolution

from U. California, Berkeley.

Online Course for Teachers: Teaching Evolution

This a U.S. course from PBS which could be used by British teachers. Video clips. The lot.

Session 8: How Can you deal with Controversy?  links to Managing the Conflict Between Evolution & Religion. (an extract from an article”Managing the Conflict Between Evolution & Religion” The American Biology Teacher, Vol. 62, No. 2, February 2000, pp. 102-107.)

Session 8 asks the teacher to draw up some concept maps to show how evolution ties biology together:  There are some examples from another site here:Using Concept Maps to Teach Evolution Vern Beeson and Tim Culp

Complaints About How We Teach Evolution


The Logic of teaching evolution

Bear in mind evolution is taught from early teens onwards.  It is only at GCSE that is done under a discrete subject heading.  Since Neo-Darwinism (a clear short explanation of the difference between Neo-Darwinism and The Modern Synthesisis in The Modern Synthesis of Genetics and Evolution), it has been deemed necessary to teach evolution by introducing the  ‘tools’  such as animal and plant adaptation and genetics, and only then introducing Darwin’s theory and the evidence that support it.

This first paragraph from Chapter 2 of The theory of evolution by John Maynard Smith (1958), shows that a historical/chronological approach might be as effective:

The fact that animals and plants are adapted to the environments in which they live was recognized long before the theory of evolution had gain acceptance among biologists. Similarly, the idea that the different kinds of animals and plants could be classified according to a ‘natural’ scheme preceded that idea that such a scheme of classification reflected evolutionary relationships. It was in fact the similarities between different kinds, or species, of plants and animals, similarities which makes a natural classification possible, which led Darwin, Lamarck, and other to seek an evolutionary explanation of the origin of species, just as it was the fact of adaptation which suggested to them theories as to how evolution might take place.

Styles of introducing the subject change. In the UK schools constantly change text books because they are written to the syllabuses.  A old (1997) GSCE text book I have  has four sections on fossils over about 8 pages, which doesn’t tie-in fossils as part of the evidence for evolution in any detailed way: in one section it says only this about evolution: “We say that living things have evolved”. In another section just: “They [i.e. fossils] tell us living things evolved”, in another there is a brief standard explanation of why dinosaurs became extinct. It was certainly an introduction to the idea of the link between the age of rocks and the  fossils in them, but without either a historical introduction or a clearer reason for why it is important, this seems a poor approach.

If history of science was part of the national curriculum from the age of 11, many of the topics that form the background to studying evolution could have been covered elsewhere. For example, the beginnings of taxonomy could introduce the work of Linneus, explaining that he believed species had been separately created, and that his classification system was showing the design of a creator. Lyall’s work on geology could be shown to have had an influence on Darwin’s later thinking.

For taxonomy, which is one of tools for describing evolutionary theory,  it is not until A level or usually undergraduate level that the difficult question of What is a species? comes into the equation. What is a Species? And What is Not? by Ernst Mayr (Originally Published in Philosophy of Science, Vol. 63 (June 1996) pp. 262-277.) shows why this sort of question is not being introduced till degree level.  Even on the what is a species? question alone, it is clear that what evolution is taught, from the age of 11 onwards, is a series of simplifications and omissions – increasing in content and complexity of concepts covered – deemed necessary to be able to deliver anything at all understandable at each age range. But by not dealing with the difficulties over such things as defining a species, the historical development of taxonomy and how it became to be seen as having signicance to evolution, explaining evolution is being made more difficult later on as the questions arise from blanks in understanding.

September 25, 2008 Posted by | general | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Sir, I Don’t Believe in Evolution.” Creation in the classroom II.

Michael Reiss has resigned from the Royal Society.  This <- article does explain what he said he meant. Richard Dawkins, yesterday , in a letter to New Scientist, thinking the ‘resignation’ a bit harsh, also helped to clarify what Reiss meant.  Though all this is not necessary because the notes of Reiss speech is available online.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, didn’t want creationism/ID taught science classes.  Reiss wasn’t asking for it to be taught, merely discussed. But to discuss it properly  requires a set of bigger questions to be asked such as  What is Science?

Evolution vs. Creation is definitely a minority sport.  I’ve always found it fascinating: but there has always been a tug between nailing it again and moving on: the feeling that the time could be better spent on other more important things.

Is it an intriguing debate but does it really matter to society as a whole? Try to imagine a world without Darwin’s theory (well it is in fact in a way because so few people have any idea what it is…) and the subsequent science which underpins it like genetics and the discovery of DNA.  Would it make life any better?  Apart from undermining an existing paradigm, God,  what from knowing that life is a continuum and that one species derives from another  do we get out of it? Or what about no evolutionary theory but a lot known, from Mendel’s peas onwards, about genetics.  At least genetics has had a obvious practical effect. And I would suggest the simplest starting point for arguing the case for evolution. We cannot deny we breed and pass on our genes. Recombination at gametogenesis, all that stuff.  The simple observation that you and I represent a continuous line of successful breeding – not a single break in the transfer of genes – since the first man (even if you don’t want to go back and further) is pretty impressive.

If the science teacher was to venture into this minefield in class its seems a  wise strategy, first, for the doubting student to be asked what it is particularly about evolution he or she doesn’t believe or is unhappy about – the old working from the known to the unknown, which is the cornerstone of teaching. It might be confusion or lack of understanding over origins of life and the origin of species.

It is clear where a big problem lies in the classroom: the student going home to tell parent science teacher was proselytizing for evolutionary theory.

The last post was provoked by Reiss’s suggestion that creationism might be discussed in science lessons and because i have encountered a few students who were prepared to say they didn’t believe in evolution.  They were probably Jehovah’s Witnesses. Possibly Muslims. I can’t remember what I told them. Probably because it was revision time in Year 12, only a few weeks before exams, that if they wanted to pass the exam they’d have to know the facts!

Having read a bit more from the web, it is clear that the biology teacher has to be prepared well for the question, even though it won’t come up very often in British classrooms.  For example: the fundamentalist Christian approach is different in places from the Witnesses, and both might well be different from any Muslim objections:  so lump them all under anti-evolution won’t do if you don’t want to upset someone unnecessarily.

The title of that post hints at my typically British attitude: biology  teacher has quick chat with the unbelievers and moves swiftly on.  In practice, there is no time in a hectic teaching schedule to idly stand around discussing this subject, which if teased out to its fuzzy horizons would encompass everything from what truth is, what science is,  religion,  theology, the philosophy of belief, history, sociology, politics, Uncle Tom Cobley ‘n All.

In the States, the problem of the resurgence of creationism/ID has been seen by the American science teaching profession as a serious threat for some time. How seriously they take the anti-science movement can be seen from the existence of books like Defending Evolution in the Classroom by Brian J and Susan Alters, published in 2001(of which there are a few pages in GoogleBook including the complete forward by the late Stephen Jay Gould.) Then there is: Case Teaching Notes for “Equal Time for Intelligent Design?  An Intimate Debate Case” (with undergraduates in mind) by Clyde Freeman Herreid, Department of Biological Sciences, University at Buffalo, State University of New York. Note the  mention of the fallacy of “false dichotomy”. SEE wiki:false dilemmaBlack-or-White Fallacy.  Also useful portion of GoogleBook, Evolution Vs. Creationism by Eugenie Carol Scott, published in 2005 and a website “Creation “Science” Debunked by Lenny Flank, which deals with every aspect.

This short paper does not do the detail but has some interesting points: Why Creation ‘Science’ Must Be Kept Out of the Classroom.

Creation “Science” Debunked a website by Lenny Flack ( “This website has one very clear objective in mind — to present a history of creation “science” and its latest reincarnation as Intelligent Design “theory”, and to lay bare the political and social roots of this movement.”)

Modern Creationists is a post in a website called Bad Archaeology Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews and James Doese.

There is another way to tackle this: What is going on amongst UK intellectuals on evolution vs. creationism?  We know what Dawkins, Dennett and co think. Anything else?  New Humanist covers the argument which ensured from A C Grayling’s review of Sam Fullers’ book, Dissent over Descent.

Sam Fuller was a witness at the Dover trial. Right at the bottom it tells us he is author of book called The Intelligent Person’s Guide to Intelligent Design Theory.

Richard Dawkins and Jerry Coyne (Guardian 1 September 2005), One Side can be Wrong, in arguing that creationism has no place in science classes, also adds that there is plenty of debate within evolution, which they outline.

There is a link to 29+ Evidences for Macroevolution: The Scientific Case for Common Descent

(Theobald, Douglas L. “29+ Evidences for Macroevolution: The Scientific Case for Common Descent.” The Talk.Origins Archive. Vers. 2.83. 2004. 12 Jan, 200)

Reading that Intelligent Design Comes to Blighty ( Or, rather came in 2006. ) I begin to think I might be totally out of touch. You can take any of those links at the bottom of the page and get a  pretty good idea of what had been going on in the last year or so.  Wiki:Truth in Science

Truth in Science looks superficially like a science site.  The About page doesn’t give too much away. Though the Paul Johnson quote in the top left panel does rather give it away:

The truth is that once you embark on Darwinian nihilism there is no resting place. If there is no point in life, everything in the end has to go — duty, laws, arts, letters, society — and you are left with nothing, except ‘proceeding’.

Paul Johnson (The Spectator, 23 April 2005)

Surely all this is at the root of what education is about? For  intelligent !6+ students to get their heads around how  Andrew MacIntosh {2} can be a  serious chemical engineer, while at the same time being a Young Earth Creationist.  I’m think along the lines of  incommensurability of values.

I’m also seeing that the latest upsurge of venom from the UK scientific community against anti-evolutionism has its roots in the  pressure brought to bear by organisations like Truth in Science.  So, in essence, in a mini version of what has been going on in the U.S. for years is beginning in the UK.  Not a lot of people know that.  Not a lot of people really know what evolution is either. A failure of the education system?  The surveys such as the one done by the BBC show a surprising  large number choosing ID.  Perhaps this is because they know little if nothing about evolutionary theory except the slogans of the anti-evolutionists. Is there such a thing as a priming of (for) ignorance?

September 17, 2008 Posted by | science | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

J E H Smith on Fodor on natural selection

Even Tierra del Fuegans Do It

The Uncashed Metaphor of Natural Selection

Justin E. H. Smith    (30 April 2008)

Why Pigs Don’t Have Wings

Jerry Fodor  (LRB, 18 Octotober 2007)

Some of F quotes (not in order)

…the notion of natural selection is conceptually flawed

….an appreciable number of perfectly reasonable biologists are coming to think that the theory of natural selection can no longer be taken for granted. This is, so far, mostly straws in the wind; but it’s not out of the question that a scientific revolution – no less than a major revision of evolutionary theory – is in the offing. Unlike the story about our minds being anachronistic adaptations, this new twist doesn’t seem to have been widely noticed outside professional circles. The ironic upshot is that at a time when the theory of natural selection has become an article of pop culture, it is faced with what may be the most serious challenge it has had so far. Darwinists have been known to say that adaptationism is the best idea that anybody has ever had. It would be a good joke if the best idea that anybody has ever had turned out not to be true. A lot of the history of science consists of the world playing that sort of joke on our most cherished theories.

…..serious alternatives to adaptationism have begun to emerge; ones that preserve the essential claim that phenotypes evolve, but depart to one degree or other from Darwin’s theory that natural selection is the mechanism by which they do.

….the classical Darwinist account of evolution as primarily driven by natural selection is in trouble on both conceptual and empirical grounds. Darwin was too much an environmentalist. He seems to have been seduced by an analogy to selective breeding, with natural selection operating in place of the breeder. But this analogy is patently flawed; selective breeding is performed only by creatures with minds, and natural selection doesn’t have one of those. The alternative possibility to Darwin’s is that the direction of phenotypic change is very largely determined by endogenous variables.

The present worry is that the explication of natural selection by appeal to selective breeding is seriously misleading, and that it thoroughly misled Darwin. Because breeders have minds, there’s a fact of the matter about what traits they breed for; if you want to know, just ask them. Natural selection, by contrast, is mindless; it acts without malice aforethought. That strains the analogy between natural selection and breeding, perhaps to the breaking point. What, then, is the intended interpretation when one speaks of natural selection? The question is wide open as of this writing.”

Letters in response to Fodor from Daniel Dennett, Colin Tudge, Jerry Coyne and Philip Kitcher and Steven Rose

September 14, 2008 Posted by | general | , , , | Leave a comment

J E H Smith on La regle du jeu (and Leibniz)

Who’ll help me out of this skin

25 June 2008


Justin Erik Halldór Smith

– An archive of essays, journalism, and satire

September 14, 2008 Posted by | general | , , | Leave a comment

“Sir, I don’t believe in evolution” I. Intelligent Design Equal Time? No, just a quick chat on creation with the teacher

This is mainly from the UK perspective.

The classic article on this little local difficulty was Ben Bova’s anti-creationism Omni Magazine, Creationist’s Equal Time, where he wrote something along the lines of: “You can’t show pigs can fly by demonstrating that butterflies have (or was it don’t have?) wings.”

Creationism is extinct: a new species, ID, which accepts the old age of the earth, evolved in the ID 90s and 00s. Well, of course, creationism ( in its various forms*) is not extinct but ID appears to be a more powerful way of attacking evolutionary theory because it looks more scientific. Though even the key proponents admit is it politics and religion not science. Wiki:creationism* has a handy little table with the varieties of creationism. The Wiki deals with the issue broadly, including attitudes in different countries, what the Archbishop of Canterbury said, and so on.


I like this little story, reported in North Texas Skeptics (.org), under the title, Creation and Evolution at grand canyon:

A debate about the age and geological history of the Grand Canyon has escalated into a national issue in the USA after a creationist book was put on sale in the attraction’s official bookshop.

The book, Grand Canyon: A Different View, by a local trail guide, Tom Vail, claims that years of erosion had nothing to do with the canyon’s creation. Rather, its shape should be attributed to the Old Testament flood — meaning that it is only a few thousand years old.

The book’s presence in the bookshop has created a rumpus between creation-ists and evolutionists.

Geologists estimate that the 217-mile canyon in Arizona was fashioned by the Colorado river some five to six million years ago and contains some of the oldest exposed rocks on Earth.

According to a report in The Guardian newspaper, Mr Vail writes: ‘For years, as a Colorado river guide, I told people how the Grand Canyon was formed over the evolutionary timescale of millions of years. Then I met the Lord. Now I have a different view of the canyon, which according to a biblical timescale can’t possibly be more than a few thousand years old’.

The claim has prompted the American Geological Institute and seven scientific bodies to flood the National Park Service with complaints calling for the book to be removed from the shop.

The book has sold out but is being reordered, and its display has been moved from the natural sciences section to ‘inspirational reading’.

Deanne Adams, the Park Service’s chief of interpretation for the Pacific region, told The Los Angeles Times: ‘We struggle. Creationism versus science is a big issue at some places. We like to acknowledge that there are different viewpoints, but we have to stick with the science. That’s our training’.

The Grand Canyon superintendent is seeking advice from the National Park Service headquarters in Washington.

He got religion, so changed his mind. Fair enough.  You would be a bit confused if you re-visited the canyon and heard the before and after talks by the same guide.


The problem of whether science teachers teaching evolution should engage in debate in class with those  students who don’t believe in evolution, was discussed today in The Today Programme on BBC Radio 4.

This is the summary of that section of the programme on the website:

Creationism should be discussed in science lessons, according to the professor in charge of education at the Royal Society. He says that with more children coming into class who do not accept the scientific version of the history of the universe, creationism should not be treated as taboo. Professor Michael Reiss, of the Royal Society, and Dr Simon Underdown, of Oxford Brookes University, discuss whether creationism has a place in the science classroom.

Prof. Michael Reiss, director of education, Royal Society, blogged in the Guardian on the subject on 11 September 2008: Science lessons should tackle creationism and intelligent design.

He links in his post to a 5 October, 2007 Guardian article by Anthea Lipsett, Experts call for Creationism in classroom, which points out :

…. academics from the Institute of Education in London and Valdosta State University in the US say the theory of evolution should be taught as a significant part of science lessons, with room to discuss creationism.

Michael Reiss, professor of science education at the institute, and Leslie Jones, science educator at Valdosta’s biology department, have written a new book aimed at helping science teachers enter the evolution and creationism debate.

Teaching about Scientific Origins: Taking Account of Creationism aims to help science teachers who want their students to understand the scientific position on the origins of the universe, while taking seriously and respectfully the concerns of those who do not accept evolution.

Creationism call divides Royal Society

Observer 14 September 2008

The Big Question: Why is creationism on the rise, and does it have a place in education?

Independent 12 September 2008


I pulled  a 1979 Letts Revise biology text book for O level and CSE off my shelf and found under ‘Other Theories of Evolution’:

1. Lamark [5 line explanation of the theory]

2. Biblical views (added to by theologians)   [That’s not my comment it’s the text….]

(a) The variety of organisms was special created, all at once – Bishop Usher in Victorian times put the date at 4004 B.C. Fossil evidence disproves this.

(b) Man was regarded as the supreme creation, quite separate from and ‘lord’ over all animals. Now, even the Roman Catholic  Encyclical of 1951 recognises the anmal origin of mam

(c) The ‘Creation’ was regarded as the product of a grand ‘Design’ by a ‘Designer’. Science emphasises that chance events largely  shape biological progress. Mutations and meiosis; the first meeting of your parents, and which two of theirgametes fuse to form your first cell – all events with a strong element of chance in them – these have shaped your destiny.

If the Biblical view of design of organisms for special purposes is correct, it is indeed surprising that the ‘Designer’ should have made so many mistakes (extinction) or created ahlf-way houses such as  Archaeopteryx.

A very few Christians (‘fundamentalists’) today belief the account of the origin of species exactly as it appears in the book of Genesis in the bible. However, neo-Darwinian theory is still only a theory and requires further evidence to convince some people.

Perhaps there ought to be a trawl of the text books (UK, that is) to see what is already being offered in on creation, creationism and Intelligent design.  Going by this example from an older biology text book for 14-16 year olds, there was no problem then including creation and creationism though clearly not science.  Perhaps now, with Intelligent design, which looks a bit like science, there is greater reluctance to include it.  I would be interested to learn if ID is mentioned in any up-to-date biology text books and how it is tackled. For example,  any mention of Michael Behe or irreducible complexity? If it’s there it most likely be in A Level and undergraduate books rather than those for 14-16 year olds).  If you’re not familiar with the ID argument, it’s all over the web, but this article in Natural History Mag, Intelligent Design? is a brief, clear explanation giving argument and  scientific counterargument.


How many secondary school pupils in the UK are standing up in evolution classes to express their belief in creation? 1 in 10 may not ‘believe in evolution’ but  what are they saying in the classroom?


Having been in that delicate creation-evolution position with a few 15-16 year olds, I feel strongly there should be a protocol to deal with this. The science department might put a rider into the lessons notes, a leaflet even – right at the beginning of the evolution course – explaining that some students might feel uncomfortable being taught the evidence for evolution because they do not ‘ believe in evolution.’  It could say science cannot deal with questions of belief and explain why.

( Question here of whether there ought to be a right of opt out of this part of the course…..should you have to learn about something that undermines the basis of your faith? I don’t see why they should have to. Might effect their exam results but… )

Such a preemption could mollify non-believers in evolution, to an extent, by saying the course examines the evidence for the theory of evolution – rather than say as Richard Dawkins does that the evidence is so strong it makes it a fact –  recommending the student should discuss doubts or anxieties with the religious studies teacher, who will have boned up on evolution.  There aren’t many philosophy teachers in schools.  Ideally they ought to be brought in too.

This whole process should not be see as a problem, but a way to help to enhance the explanation of what science is, and to clarify what belief is.  A brief philosophical explanation of belief (outside the science class…) would highlight the problem. I am not saying a 14-16 year old GCSE student should be expected to wade through the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on belief, but a well crafted summary would be valuable.


What is already being done in schools to help with the evolution-creation issue ?  BBC Bitesize Religious Studies.

National Curriculum for religion Keystage 3.

National Curriculum for religion Keystage 4 is pretty comprehensive in this area.

Personal, Social, Health and Economic education (PSHE) is part of the National Curriculum. Note this part of the curriculum:

As they explore similarities and differences between people and discuss social and moral dilemmas, they learn to deal with challenges and accommodate diversity in all its forms. The world is full of complex and sometimes conflicting values. Personal wellbeing helps pupils explore this complexity and reflect on and clarify their own values and attitudes. They identify and articulate feelings and emotions, learn to manage new or difficult situations positively and form and maintain effective relationships with a wide range of people.

2.1 Critical reflection

Pupils should be able to:

  • reflect critically on their own and others’ values
  • Lets face it this it the nitty gritty of education.


    Teaching evolution in schools in an an atmosphere of increasing interest in creationism is made more difficult because of a lack of framework of history or science and history of ideas at secondary level.  If these were taught as separate subjects as part of the national curriculum, to 16 and beyond outside science classes, the evolution part of the biology syllabus would not be such a shock to the system for the 1 in 10 in schools who apparently now don’t ‘belief in evolution’.

    Although there is a trend towards introducing critical thinking,  I think philosophy should be right there from the beginning. Why not begin with the history of philosophy and the history of science apart from science lessons? It is difficult to fit every subject nto the timetable, but it is quite natural for children to think along philosophical lines.  Every reasonably intelligent child begins to ask questions about concepts that are part of philosophy.  A lecture given by Patricia Churchland, Philosphy in an Age of Neuroscience, shows it ought to be explained how much science has encroached on philosophy.


    Obviously  science teachers don’t want equal time for ID because this undermines the teaching of science as whole.  Slowly, over 5-7 years, students at secondary school learn about the design of experiments, the collection of data, the distinctions between hypothesis and theory – all the rigors of the scientific method – through carrying out practical experiments. They are not going to be taught about Popper’s verisimilude, but they get a understanding of what science is and does. Even if they leave school t 16 they should come away seeing that science is a specific tool for a specific job.

    How science (here biology) is taught ought to be part of the debate about dealing with creationism and ID.  This is not mentioned.  The Nuffield Project on the 60s petered out in the 70s.  It proved too difficult to implement because it relied so much on practical work. Though the original idea was to use it for lower ability groups, its use demonstrated it could only be really useful with the higher ability children.   If you drop into science classes nowadays, you will see how tightly it is geared to exams. Textbooks are written to curricula. Hence science  becomes drier and drier, with less time for practical experiments.

    But there is talk, as here by Peter Campbell, Teaching Creation about starting from molecular biology rather than natural selection. (In fact biology text books have been doing this for decades, leaving evolution to much later.)

    In other words, I am questioning whether there is a deep enough scientific literacy at secondary level which allows even science professors of education to be asking that time be taken in science courses to debate evolution over creation.  How is going to happen?  The curriculum is taught at breakneck speed, with all teachers expected to get through each section at the same time.

    September 12, 2008 Posted by | general | , , , , , | Leave a comment

    God in the biology

    CARTOON God Spot

    Nathan Schneider in What Happens when God is Biologized? valiantly pulls together the threads under three heads: cognitivists, neurotheologians and evolutionary biologists.

    Brings to mind Sir Alistair Hardy’s The Biology of God, based on Hardy’s hypothesis that religious experience involves a kind of awareness that has evolved through natural selection because of its survival value to the individual.

    Think of individuals or groups of believers who have gone to their deaths for their beliefs. It is not the simple fact of belief in a God that they have died for but the complex and sophisticated religion belief in God was part of.  Believing in the face of death is to me as much about the strength of the in-group drive than the beliefs died for.  Or, in other words, the tendency and capacity to belief would not work very well without group support. It is a double bind. To recant in the face of death (though in the holocaust it would have made no difference – they thought they were destroying a race as much as a religion) is to make it harder for the remainder of the group who survive to adhere to the belief they hold in common. Though the given reasons will be their faith, they cannot not have the idea of what comes after for the survivors if they are seen to recant under duress.

    Any study of religions soon turns up the thorny issue of schism.

    In the article is a quote from Cognitivist and Christian Justin Barrett, author of Why Would Anyone Believe in God?

    “Belief in God comes naturally. Disbelief requires human intervention.”

    I was struck by how patently silly this was, in the sense that a prodigious effort over millenia has been made to promulgate both the idea of God, of God over over Gods (at one time most peoples were polytheistic) and of the desirability and efficacy of one religion over another; while at the same time minds have been at work for centuries refuting God’s existence within the framework of new philosophical thinking  and scientific advance. Both belief and non-belief require effort, topping up, in various ways. One of these is the support of others who believe or disbelieve like you. A study of the history and sociology of religion will make it clear how proactive a process belief is, and how much it is a group activity. How over time  there have been shifts in emphasis, which is not unlike an evolutionary process, except that human thought in the main is deemed to be progressive, while evolution is blind.

    The mountains of time theologians have spent on the proofs of God’s existence is just one part of effort to maintain belief in God.  I have long believed (or should I say’ had the opinion that’) the core to understanding belief,  religions and ideologies is through the psychology of the in-group. This is because the in-group tendency is surely biological whether or not the tendency and capacity to believe are.

    Beliefs are taken to be the exemplar of persistence, but people have died (in both the sense of being adherents and non adherents) for political ideologies too.

    We have no way of telling (no control experiment) if belief in God comes naturally, and persists, because people grew up in societies which were and are God saturated.  A natural experiment would be where a believer has been left isolated for years, of which there must have been a few. Or where individuals who were not believers were left on their own.  Auschwitz was a natural experiment: Where is God now?

    There are those who turn away from belief. Perhaps their brains ought to be examined! Dan Barker gave up on religion. He might be put under the scanner to see if different areas of his brain light up. Would have been nice to check him before and after. He now says things like:

    Basic atheism is not a belief. It is the lack of belief. There is a difference between believing there is no god and not believing there is a god — both are atheistic, though popular usage has ignored the latter.
    Dan Barker, defending the “weak” definition for the word atheism, in, Losing Faith in Faith: From Preacher to Atheist, quoted from Austin Cline, “Defining Atheism: Contemporary Atheists

    I am a bit confused here: are not the statements”I believe in God” and “I don’t believe in God” both beliefs?

    Need to turn to philosopy : Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: belief.

    There is a lecture by Richard Lewontin, Gene, Organism and Environment: Bad metaphors and Good Biology He’s the guy who helped write Not in Our Genes [1984] with Stephen Rose and Leon Kamin.*  He’s concerned about how we use words to explain things, particularly metaphorically.  One of the things he says (pretty much what is in Not in our Genes page 273 Penguin paperback):

    Organisms do not simply adapt to previously existing, autonomous environments: they create destroy, modify and internally transform aspects of the external world by their own life activities to make this environment. Just as there is no organism without environment, so their is no environment without an organism.

    He then goes on in a fascinating footnote, to take apart the logic of Richard Dawkins’ The Extended Phenotype, in which NIOG says Dawkins is forced to handle the fact that the organism acts on its environment by defining what we here call the “active environment” as an aspect of the organism’s phenotype.

    Dawkins responded strongly to Not in Our Genes at the time of publication, e.g in New Scientist.

    Maybe some of Lewontin’s arguments about the ifs buts and whyfors of explaining biology,  such as the organism-environment question, could be transferred to examining belief.

    Then there is the business of believing in a different kind of God to the majority.  For example, the Cathars were ‘written out of’ history’ because their way of  expressing their belief in God was different from the established Catholic church. Belief in God is not just a private thought or public assertion: it involves a demonstration in personal terms (usually held in common) through religious practices.

    In one way of looking at it, we might say that science may be beginning to show some sort of spiritual feeling exists (evolved) in the mind of man, but that it took the organised thinking of many men to explain what it was we were feeling.

    It is always possible for an individual to claim a feeling means something or other: a transcendent or immanent sensation MEANS the presence of God; The feeling you get is interpreted as being in the presence of The Almighty. Tradition and social conditioning help to make it so.

    Strictly, the appurtenances of faith – the  rules and regs that underpin it – are not faith itself: the dogma and accepted theology of a particular church, at a given time, are not the beliefs of individual people in an omnipresent all powerful God. They are add ons. There have been different add-ons at different times.

    One might say that religion (organised religion) has been build around the spiritual feelings which people claim to experience. In other words, people come to a decision about what this vaguer feeling is about or points towards. The choice of what the experience is deemed to be has varied over time. Ancient peoples were not monotheistic.  They would have been unlikely to focus on a single God if they believed in many.  Does the argument that would be used to justify the change from polytheism to monotheism –that people didn’t understand correctly there was only one God till a certain time in history — mean that the God spot only evolved quite recently?

    It has been suggested that in neolithic times sacred practices were often much closer to natural phenomena. In other words with the passage of time they have moved into the supernatural.

    * Both Lewontin and Rose are Left-wing, so take it or leave it.

    September 11, 2008 Posted by | God, religion | , , | Leave a comment


    Sucker for art crit / history so here one for the collection:

    Perennial Cézanne

    by Andrew Lambirth (Spectator August 28 2008)

    September 11, 2008 Posted by | general | | Leave a comment


    Interoception – sensitivity to stimuli originating inside of the body

    Also called visceral sensory psychobiology

    Flesh Made Soul
    Can a new theory in neuroscience explain spiritual experience to a non-believer?

    By Sandra Blakeslee     March 1, 2008

    Extract from Chapter 10 of The Body Has a Mind of Its Own, by Sandra and Matthew Blakeslee

    A Google Book abstract : The Absent Body by Drew Leder.

    This pdf of an academic paper, Interoception – the inside story has basic facts buried in it such as when the word interception was first used.

    Interoception and Comfort by Len Ochs.

    September 10, 2008 Posted by | general | , | Leave a comment

    Visual illusions II

    While looking up some links to accompany the first visual illusions post, this 2002 article from on the historical interest in visual illusions popped up too: Pleasing Deceptions by Wendy Bellion.

    Commonplace is a interesting website . Amongst current articles this one, A Passion for Places by Trevor Burnard, catches my eye – o’k it’s mainly the  old map, but the notion of concern in space rather than chronology is also worth a examination.

    September 10, 2008 Posted by | general | | Leave a comment


    This article by Trevor Butterworth, Pause Celebre, on the use of the semi-colon was first published in the Financial Times, September 17, 2005

    September 10, 2008 Posted by | general | , | Leave a comment

    The Split brain

    Video in Youtube via The Situationist of an epileptic, who has had his corpus collosum severed to ameliorate his condition, being used in an experiment to show how when he views pictures with his left eye (= right brain) he cannot name objects – this is done by through the ‘talking’ left brain.

    September 9, 2008 Posted by | general | | Leave a comment

    Meet the Wittgensteins

    A long extract with photos, from Alexander Waugh’s new book, The House of Wittgenstein, in the Telegraph.  Probably won’t help understanding the Tractatus or Philosophical Investigations, but it looks interesting.

    I see on my shelves there is also William Bartley II’s Wittgenstein, and Zettel, which I bet I never read. Zettel’, I learn, means in German ‘a little piece of paper’. Page 96, number 550: What purpose is served by the statement:”I do have something, if I have a pain?” I don’t know.  Nothing probably. This might be a pretty good party game. Read out from Zettel statement or question at random and ask the guests to volunteer a few words in response. Points to anyone who can say anything at all apart from”What?”, “oh..”, “Hah!” or “Huh!” For 550. you win maximum points for saying, “We do not say such things.” Bonuses for “Though we might say we have a pain, we tend not to philosophise about whether we have ‘something’ when we have a pain.”

    Rising up in my mind from the story of the Wittgensteins is the richness of the Austrian/Austro-Hungarian intellectual milieu and the masses of writers, musicians and artists who arose from it.  Is it me or can one say that if one’s reading is wide enough one always seem to get thrown back to Austria or Austrians: crisscrossing the mountain tracks of culture, it is very easy to slip down a windy path into things Austrian.

    Making my own list, from the few names I remember, as signifiers of what I know would demonstrate the paucity of my knowledge.  Why not parasitise someone else?  Here, almost at random, though not without superficially noting a certain éclat, Austria through the eyes of a young Austrian, Dr. Bendict Mandel, who explains himself at his about this site. I Googled “Austria culture intellectual”,  which threw up his page Background information Austria:Austrian and Vienna Culture at about number 7. (He does mention in his CV he’s into SEO.) A quick run down the links and you know he’s been diligently beavering away and it seems like he’s got a sense of humour ( A Guide to Fucking (a Village) in Austria).

    A cribbers paradise in hyertextual form: six pages on Experience Austria Through Literature, and A Jewish History of Austria.

    September 9, 2008 Posted by | general | , | Leave a comment

    Visual illusion

    The wiki entry calls them optical illusions

    The roller motion visual illusion (explanation from Akiyoshi’s illusion pages) which was shown in 3 Quarks a few days ago without comment seemed as if it was crying out for one. The obvious point is this a moving illusion. Although straightforward visual tricks using ambiguity are fascinating, the motion illusions are to me the most affecting. It seems to be saying something rather powerful about the brain. The traditional reason for studying visual illusions was a way to show how the brain worked in a not dissimilar way to brain-damaged patients do.

    An unlikely source of clarification about visual illusions can be found in the Edge article below. In it Nathan Myhrvold [First Day report – Edge 0] discusses priming experiments in behavioural economics. [ Who is Minding the Mind by Dominict Carey in NYT discusses priming in other areas.] Nyhrvold says at the end of the experiments he describes:

    …it seems absurd, but cheap metaphors capture our minds. Humans, it seems, are like drunken poets, who can’t glimpse a screen saver in the corner, or plot some points on graph paper without swooning under the metaphorical load and going off on tangents these stray images inspire.


    The analogy that seems most apt to me is optical illusions. An earlier generation of psychologists got very excited about how the low level visual processing in our brains is hardwired to produce paradoxical results. The priming stories seem to me to be the symbolic and metaphorical equivalent. The priming metaphors in optical illusions are the context of the image—the extra lines or arrows that fool us into making errors in judgment of sizes or shapes. While one can learn to recognize optical illusions, you can’t help but see the effect for what it is. Knowing the trick does not lessen its intuitive impact. You really cannot help but think one line is longer, even if you know that the trick will be revealed in a moment.

    The next section clears it up, though of course he mainly referring to his subject:

    Perhaps the same thing is true here—the point of these psychological experiments, like the illusions, is to isolate an effect in a very artificial circumstance. This is a great way to get a clue about how the brain works (indeed it would seem akin to Steven Pinker’s latest work The Stuff of Thought which argues for the importance of metaphors in the brain). But is it really important to day-to-day real world thinking? In particular, can economics be informed by these experiments? Does behavioral economics produce a systematically different result that classical economics if these ideas are factored in?

    I can imagine it both ways. If it is important, then we are all at sea, tossed and turned in a tumultuous tide of metaphors imposed by our context. That is a very strange world—totally counter to our intuition. But maybe that is reality.

    Try the Stepping Feet illusion which he says he designed from a version from from Stuart Antis, who has a collection of his own illusions. Note the latter has a way of enhancing the illusion by getting you to use peripheral vision.  I think I have linked to it so that the ‘feet move  on the plain background. Click the background button for the dramatic effect.

    The Cool Effect Illusion is pretty cool too.  This is unusual in the need to move to make it work.

    Mark Bowers has a collection of illusions in a post, including a nice large one of the shades of gray illusion and the ‘red is green’ illusion (remember  the Stroop Effect?)

    Simanek (link below) says under the sub-heading ‘Seeing illusions’ :

    Some persons look at these illusion pictures and are not at all intrigued. “Just a mis-made picture,” some will say. Some, perhaps less than 1 percent of the population, do not `get’ the point because their brains do not process flat pictures into three dimensional images. These same persons have trouble with ordinary engineering line drawings and textbook illustrations of three dimensional structures.

    Others can see that `something is wrong’ with the picture, but are not fascinated enough to inquire how the deception was accomplished. These are people who go through life never quite understanding, or caring, how the world works, because they can’t be bothered with the details, and lack the appropriate intellectual curiosity.

    It may be that the appreciation of such visual paradoxes is one sign of that kind of creativity possessed by the best mathematicians, scientists and artists. M. C. Escher’s artistic output included many illusion pictures and highly geometric pictures, which some might dismiss as `intellectual mathematical games’ rather than art. But they hold a special fascination for mathematicians and scientists.

    Oscar Reutersvärd – a founding father of impossible figures

    78 Optical Illusions and Visual Phenomena

    Atlas of Visual Penomena

    Grand Illusions

    The Principles of Artistic Illusions by Donald E. Simanek

    Key to all optical illusions discovered (well, it’s a theory)

    Motion ambiguity (

    A Short Course in Behavioral Economics (

    An online version of

    Visual Illusions: Their Causes, Characteristics and Applications by Matthew Luckiesh, first published in 1922.  Visual illusion in nature, architecture and much more.

    September 8, 2008 Posted by | general | | Leave a comment

    Maxim Gorky

    Gorky may have been his own greatest character, but the story of the character Gorky is one of the most disappointing and upsetting in modern literature.

    Low Truths
    A Review by Alexander Nemser of:

    Gorky’s Tolstoy and Other Reminiscences: Key Writings by and about Maxim Gorky (Russian Literature and Thought)
    by Maksim Gorky

    September 7, 2008 Posted by | general | | Leave a comment

    Nothing to Be Frightened Of by Julian Barnes

    BWO 3 Quarks : a review by Michael Dirda in The Washington Post of Julian Barnes’ Nothing to Be Frightened Of.

    September 7, 2008 Posted by | general | , | Leave a comment

    Literary Darwinism

    Not quite Literary Darwinism for Dummies:
    Darwin to the Rescue: A group of scholars thinks evolutionary science can reinvigorate literary studies

    by Britt Peterson

    Chronicle of Higher Education 1 August 2008
    Literary Darwinism should be deselected, naturally

    Shirely Dent

    Guardian blog,  5 September 2008

    The Literary Darwinists by D T Max     NYT Magazine  6 November 2005

    A short post expressing doubts on LD by Stephen Berlin Johnson

    7 November 2005

    links back to Dennis Dutton’s, The Pleasure of Fiction, in Philosophy and Literature 28 (2004)

    September 7, 2008 Posted by | Darwin, evolutionary biology, Literature | | Leave a comment

    P N Furbank not happy about use of some words

    In an essay, Altruism, Selfishness and the Genes, F N Furbank takes evolutionary biologists like Richard Dawkins to task for stretching the meaning of certain words beyond the human which they describe.

    September 2, 2008 Posted by | general | , , | Leave a comment

    Ruskin on Turner

    Lifting the Veil: J.M.W. Turner and John Ruskin: Adam Kirsch in The New York Sun notes the less than fulsome praise of the New York press for the Turner exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum.  Kirsch writes:

    To understand why Turner is no longer in fashion, then, it is helpful to read Ruskin, who wrote at a time when Turner was not yet in fashion.

    A handful of Ruskin essays on Turner from art bin.

    Ruskin gave sets of Turners to Oxford and Cambridge Universities.  Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge: virtual exhibition

    This abstract from The Sublime Rivalry of Word and Image: Turner and Ruskin Revisited by Alexandra K. Wettlaufer, fronted by this quote from Oscar Wild in The Critic as Artist:

    Who cares whether Mr. Ruskin’s views on Turner are sound or not? What does it matter? That mighty and majestic prose of his, so fervid and fiery-coloured in its noble eloquence, so rich in its elaborate, symphonic music, so sure and certain, at its best, in subtle choice of word and epithet, is at least as great a work of art as any of those wonderful sunsets that bleach or rot on their corrupted canvases in England’s Gallery; greater, indeed, one is apt to think at times, not merely because its equal beauty is more enduring, but on account of the fuller variety of its appeal, soul speaking to soul in those long cadenced lines, not through form and colour alone, though through these, indeed, completely and without loss, but with intellectual and emotional utterance, with lofty passion and with loftier thought, with imaginative insight, and with poetic aim; greater, I always think, even as Literature is the greater art.

    points out:

    Turner and Ruskin each turned to the sister art both for inspiration, and importantly, for a means of supplementing what each perceived to be the insufficiencies of his own medium.

    September 2, 2008 Posted by | general | , | Leave a comment

    A Dance to the Music of Time

    Students of Phillips Academy, Andover, have produced a website of essays on Anthony Powell’s novel: A Dance to the Music of Time – Photographs and Essays.

    September 2, 2008 Posted by | general | , | Leave a comment