Don’t say “Darwin” when you mean “evolution” (part 1)

By Paul Braterman

Part I,Dalton and Darwin

Don’t say “Darwin” when you mean “evolution”. Don’t say “theory of evolution” when you mean the established historical facts of change over time and common descent. And above all, don’t say “Darwin’s theory of evolution” except in the historical context of the evolution of ideas. If you do, you are guilty of scientific, logical, historical, and pedagogical errors, and playing into the hands of our Creationist opponents.

Dalton is to the modern atomic theory, and the modern atomic theory is to chemistry, as Darwin(not to forget Wallace) is to evolution, and as evolution is to biology. But we don’t call our present perspective on atoms “Dalton’s theory”, and indeed, unless we are speaking historically, it sounds odd to even talk about “atomic theory” when we discuss atoms. So why should we refer to “Darwin’s theory”, and indeed why should we talk about the “theory of evolution” when we really mean the fact that evolution has taken place? I argue here that we shouldn’t, and that, given the ongoing opposition to the central facts of biology, it is actively damaging to do so.

John Dalton produced his “atomic theory” in the early 19th century. He arrived at it by way of a theory of gas pressure that we now know to be totally erroneous. Wielding Occam’s Razor rather too energetically, he assumed that the simplest compound between two elements contained just one atom of each, so that water would have the formula HO. He rejected what now seems to us perhaps the most striking validation of his theory, Gay-Lussac’s observation that gases combine according to simple ratios, because it pointed towards what later became known as Avogadro’s Hypothesis, which in turn required some gaseous molecules to be divisible,[1] and when it came to gaseous elements Dalton had not grasped the distinction between atoms (the fundamental particles of chemical composition) and molecules (the fundamental particles of gas pressure). It was half a century before his theory was generally accepted, and even then some remained sceptical, on the grounds that no one had ever observed the effects of individual atoms or molecules, until in 1905 Einstein pointed out that that was exactly what people were doing when they looked at Brownian motion. These days, however, individual atoms are routinely observed by the methods of high resolution transmission electron microscopy, and scanning tunnelling microscopy, both of which depend on concepts far beyond any available to Dalton.

Charles Darwin produced his theory of the mutability of species as the result of natural selection (he did not himself use the term “evolution”) in the mid-19th century. Central to the theory is the existence of sufficient heritable variation to explain the diversity of life, and a major stumbling block is the prospect that favourable variations will disappear through dilution.[2] He appealed to the experience of animal breeders, but as a solution to the problem of dilution this is grossly unfair, since breeders can and do deliberately select rare variants to breed between. He lamented the absence of fossil evidence, in terms still quoted by creationists despite the tons (literally) of such evidence that have been unearthed in the intervening 150 years. He was unaware of the digital nature of inheritance, as established by his contemporary, Gregor Mendel, but not widely known until that work was rediscovered (or more accurately, perhaps, reinterpreted)[3] at the beginning of the 20th century. He fully realised that evolution required many millions of years, and had no good answer when Lord Kelvin, his “ogre”, used thermodynamic arguments to show (correctly) that the then known sources of energy could only have kept the sun shining for a mere 20 million years or so. He had no inkling of the nature of the genetic material, and could not have conceived of the methods of molecular biology that now allow us, using much the same kind of evidence that the courts use to establish paternity, to compare related species and to chart their divergence in exquisite detail. Least of all did he have any notion of the source of the variations of which evolution depends, or of how the supply of variants is constantly replenished by mutation, a process that we can now observe at the level of an individual’s DNA.

The first half of the 20th century saw the formation of what became known as “the neo-Darwinian synthesis”, bringing together by the 1940s the concept of selection and the methods of population genetics. (The expression “neo-Darwinian” should now properly be restricted to the evolutionary thought of that time, although Creationists persist in applying it to current biology, for reasons discussed in part II).  The second half saw an explosion in our understanding of inheritance, based on laboratory studies, while the final decades saw breakthroughs in our understanding of human evolution, with the discovery of the fossilised remains of over a dozen species of our early relatives in eastern and southern Africa. By the end of the 20th century, evolution denial could fairly be compared with Holocaust denial. Given what we have learnt from molecular biology in the present century, it could now more fairly be compared with denying that Hitler ever invadedPoland in the first place.

So why does the name of Darwin still provoke controversy, why do people still speak of “the theory of evolution”, when as often as not they are referring, not to theory, but to the established historical facts,  why does it matter, and how should we respond? These topics will be the subject of my next posting, “Naming and Framing”.

(You will find  more on Dalton  and his times, and on Kelvin and the age of the earth,  in my book, From Stars to Stalagmites, andthe arguments in these two posts are developed at greater length in an article that I wrote with Britt Holbrook; Putting Darwin in his Place; the Need to Watch our Language)


[1]  Two volumes of hydrogen combine with one volume of oxygen to make two volumes of steam. If, as required by Avogadro’s Hypothesis, equal volumes of gas contain equal numbers of molecules, then each molecule of oxygen must contain (at least) two atoms, as shown in the way we now write this equation: 2H2 + O2 = 2H2O

[2] Imagine a favourable red variant in a population of white flowers. Under the blending theory of inheritance then current, its first generation offspring will be deep pink, the second generation somewhat paler, and so on until the descendants are indistinguishable from the general population.

 [3]  See Genesis; the Evolution of Biology, Jan Sapp, OUP, 2003, pp 117-122

Discovery Institute barking mad over Australopithecus sediba’s diet

By Paul Braterman

I don’t normally bother with the Creationist newssheet, Evolution News and Views, but the recent article there by David Klinghoffer goes beyond what I am willing to suffer in silence. Klinghoffer himself, of course, is a senior fellow of the Discovery Institute, and the author of How Would God Vote? Why the Bible Commands You to Be a Conservative. I do not know his academic credentials - I seem to remember that he is a lawyer, but neither his biography on the Discovery Institute website, nor his Wikipedia entry (which follows that biography rather closely), give any details, and I hope that some readers can tell us more about this.

I also think it worth noting that Klinghoffer’s article has nothing to do with Intelligent Design, misguided though that may be. Like so much Discovery Institute material, it is an attack on the well-established facts of common ancestry. In other words, what is being advocated is, in the strictest and narrowest sense of the word, creationism. And not even creationism as a philosophical or religious position, but as an interpretation of the facts of biology, in a manner that has been intellectually unsustainable since around 1830.

Anyway, to business: in my own recent posting here I describe why, when announcing their finding in 2010, the discoverers of Au. sediba chose, on reflection, to include it in the genus Australopithecus rather than in the genus Homo. That 2010 account does, however, give a long list of ways in which Au. sediba is closer than Australopithecus to modern humans, and the title I chose for my piece (An Almost Human Tragedy) reflects this. I also described the most recent, rather surprising, finding; that the diet of Au. sediba ignored available grasses, in favour of woodland products such as tree bark.

Now here is what Klinghoffer has to say about this same finding:

Another Human “Ancestor” Bites the Dust Bark

…Sure enough, the cooling trend [concerning the importance of Au. sediba] is now plainly in evidence, with Nature reporting that the creatures had a very notable characteristic in common with chimps, not humans, that had not previously been recognized: their diet, highlighted by tree bark and wood. This was found thanks to an analysis of tooth enamel and dental tartar and microwear. The NY Times lets its readers down softly:

"Dr. Berger was an author of the new journal report. Few other paleoanthropologists agree with Dr. Berger’s contention that the new species is the most plausible known ancestor of archaic and modern humans. [Emphasis added by Klinghoffer]. Dr. [Amanda G.] Henry’s group said that studies of additional fossils from the Malapa caves “will provide a better understanding of the dietary ecology of Au. sediba.”"

Actually, the New York Times account amplifies an earlier one, which said

The discoverer of the fossils, Lee Berger of the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, says the new species, known as Australopithecus sediba, is the most plausible known ancestor of archaic and modern humans. Several other paleoanthropologists, while disagreeing with that interpretation, say the fossils are of great importance anyway, because they elucidate the mix-and-match process by which human evolution was shaped.

And the original paper in Science actually said, in the Abstract,

Combined craniodental and postcranial evidence demonstrates that this new species shares more derived features with early Homo than any other australopith species and thus might help reveal the ancestor of that genus

…and, in the body of the paper (p 203, column 3),

We can conclude that combined craniodental and postcranial evidence demonstrates that this new species shares more derived features with early Homo than does any other known australopith species, and thus represents a candidate ancestor for the genus, or a sister group to a close ancestor that persisted for some time after the first appearance of Homo[my added emphasis].

The situation is exactly as I described it, with no great claim to originality, in my earlier account:

The problem is no longer one of finding a missing link, but one of tracing an individual branch (the one that led to us) through a densely forking bush. It is always notoriously difficult to distinguish closely related species, because of individual differences. Even when we can, we have no way of being sure which extinct species lie on our direct ancestral line; it is difficult to tell the difference between our great-grandfather and our great-great-uncle, or between one great-great-uncle and another.

In short, then, on the basis of newspaper accounts and apparently without having read the original literature, Klinghoffer gleefully demotes Au. sediba from a position that most workers in the field had never even claimed for it, in the belief that the evolutionary account is thereby in some way undermined. Actually, the boot is on the other foot; the loser is the religious doctrine of separate creation. For if the 20 or so known distinct australopithecine and other early hominin species are not related by common descent, and were therefore doomed to extinction without progeny, why were they ever created in the first place?

Skeptic News: South Korean Creationists campaign to change textbooks

In South Korea there are worries that anti-evolution sentiment seems to be winning its battle with mainstream science.

A campaign by the Society for Textbook Revise (STR), an organisation that aims to remove the “error” of evolution from textbooks to “correct” childrens view of the world petitioned the Korean Ministry of Education, Science and Technology (MEST) to remove references to evolution from textbooks.

The Ministry revealed that many of the publishers would produce revised editions that exclude examples of the evolution of the horse or of avian ancestor Archaeopteryx. Biologists, who were not consulted by the change when the petition was forwarded to publishers, are shocked and horrified by the decision.

On the Nature website  Dayk Jang, an evolutionary scientist at Seoul National University stated:

 “The ministry just sent the petition out to the publishing companies and let them judge,”

The STR is also campaigning to have references to human evolution removed and Darwins classic finding on species variation in Galapagos finches. The STR is an independent offshoot of the Korea Association for Creation Research (KACR) which claims to be behind a rise in creation “science” in Korea.

They seek to provide evidence in support of the creation myth described in the Book of Genesis however Dayk Jang is attempting to counter their campaign of disinformation by recruiting high profile scientists to take part in a counter campaign.

Last few days of the #SciFund challenge!

By Siouxsie Wiles

Just 4 days left to support some cool science!

Entering its final phase*, round 2 of the #SciFund challenge has surpassed the records made by round 1:

  • Over $79K contributed to date
  • 17 out of 75 projects have reached their target

My own project, Evolution in Action is just $102 short of $4K which is amazing. That’s almost 9 extra genomes to sequence! A big thanks to everyone who has supported me, either by contributing or helping spread the word. I couldn’t have done it without you guys.

*Thank goodness! I’m exhausted and can’t wait to get back to some proper blogging…

Good without God? The roots of morality

By Paul Braterman

Firstly, God doesn’t help any. The proof is known as the Euthyphro dilemma, after the character who in Plato’s dialogue of that name rashly tried to tell Socrates what it is to be pious. In present-day terms, does God want what is good because it is good, or is it good simply because God wants it? Most of us (including Socrates and Euthyphro) would reject the second alternative, because it would make goodness depend on God’s arbitrary decision. But that means that goodness is defined independently of what God wants, even if (for a certain kind of believer) God always wants what is good, and we are no further forward. Some believers invoke the brotherhood of man, as a consequence of the fatherhood of God. Humanists may find such people natural allies, while claiming to have reached the same conclusion more quickly, by cutting out the middleman. Finally, there are those who believe, like the philosopher Alvin Plantinga, that our intellectual and moral faculties were divinely implanted by some supernatural process. To those who find this a satisfactory explanation, I have nothing useful to say.

If our moral sense is not a miraculous implant, it must be the product of our evolution. Regarding this, we have two very different schools of thought, which I shall call the hardheaded and softhearted (or, if you want to be cruel, hardhearted and softheaded), rather like the psychologists’ dichotomy of tough- versus tender-minded.

The hardheaded view is that the natural condition of humanity is a brutal and lawless selfishness, developed in response to a hostile and indifferent Nature, which must be kept in check by a recently involved veneer of civilisation. A decade before the publication of The Origin of Species, the poet Tennyson had written of “Nature, red in tooth and claw”. Herbert Spencer, a believer in individual competition and a minimal role for the State, referred to “survival of the fittest” when challenged by “the aggregate of external forces” (he had been a railway engineer before he developed his own theory of evolution). T. H. Huxley, remembered today as a leading advocate ofDarwin’s ideas, actually held different views toDarwin’s on the nature of morality, regarding it as something imposed by society on our natural individual selfishness. Similar views had been expressed much earlier by Hobbes, for whom human life in a state of nature would have been “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”.

The softhearted view, which I find far more attractive (though this has nothing to do with whether or not it is correct), is that our capacity for morality is a hardwired product of our evolution. This is what Darwinthought, and in The Descent of Man he speaks of our moral sense as the noblest and most evolved part of our nature, arising from the combination of what he called the “instinct of sympathy” with our use of reason. This view also has deep roots. Hobbes himself spoke of relieving his own distress by giving money to a beggar, and Adam Smith, in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, regards concern for others as an essential part of our humanity. Kropotkin, a biologist as well as a revolutionary, gave such sympathies, even in animals, a central role in biology, in his 1902 work, Mutual Aid, A Factor of Evolution. Very recently, E.O. Wilson, in The Social Conquests of the Earth, has argued that social instincts explain the remarkable evolutionary success both of insects, and of humans.

Before considering the merits of these two viewpoints, there is one misunderstanding that we need to clear out of the way. We have all heard of the “selfish gene”, but the selfish gene is not a gene for selfishness. We can see this even at the molecular level. All of us have, within our own DNA, sequences derived from viruses that infected some remote ancestor. Such sequences are passed down from generation to generation and even species to species, and can persist, recognisable but mutating, for millions or tens of millions of years. We can even construct an evolutionary tree (Fig. 1) based on the acquisition of these “endogenous retroviruses”, ERVs, and it should surprise no one (except a creationist) that this agrees with the trees based on anatomy and the fossil record, or on molecular phylogeny.

Fig. 1. Retroviral insertions in DNA (courtesy John Wiltshire, after Theobald)

Now consider the eventual fate of an ERV. Given enough time, it will mutate beyond recognition, or perhaps disappear altogether. But if it should, in the course of this random mutating, chance to adopt a form that is of some value to the organism, then it will itself become subject to the normal processes of natural selection and refinement of function. In extreme cases, it may even become essential to the organism, as is the case with an ERV that now directs the construction of the placenta in Carnivora. When your cat has kittens, she has this ERV to thank, as well as the tom next door. The parasitic intruder has become an essential member of the household.

So is the ERV driven by some sense of sympathy for the host, or a sense of fairness or duty that makes it determined to pay for its board and lodging? Of course not. Nothing is involved beyond simple natural selection. What works, works; all living things are in competition for resources; and at times, the best way to compete is to cooperate. To put it rather differently, the struggle for existence always takes place within an environment; for a piece of DNA, the environment is the individual organism; and for simians such as ourselves, the environment is the social group, outside of which any individual would be hard put to survive.

But when we try to map the evolution of human morality, we run into an immediate problem. We know of some 20 distinct species more or less intermediate between our own species, and our last common ancestor with chimpanzees. The trouble is that what a skull or a toe bone might tell us about its owner’s behaviour is strictly limited. We have fossils of molars, but not fossils of morals. We can infer what food our ancestors ate, but not how generously they shared it.

So we have to use a range of more indirect approaches, such as comparison with our closest animal relatives, careful analysis of actual human behaviour, and consideration of what life must have been like, and what strategies would have favoured survival, when we lived as groups of hunter gatherers, or indeed for gregarious species in general.

This approach suggests a number of different precursors for human morality, many of them recognised by Darwin himself in The Descent of Man. Firstly and most obviously, we have kin selection. Obviously, if we do not succeed in caring for our offspring, our line will go extinct. Slightly less obviously, each of our siblings shares as much of our DNA as our own children. When the biologist J.B.S. Haldane was asked whether he would lay down his life for his brother, he said no, but he would lay it down for three brothers, or for five cousins. Next we have reciprocal altruism. You scratch my back, and I’ll scratch yours, and if your back doesn’t need scratching today I will bear your helpfulness in mind tomorrow. Thus returning favours is simply a matter of enlightened self-interest. Very intelligent animals, like us, will generalise beyond the individual occasion, so that we can build up reputations if we seem generous and trustworthy, and the easiest way to seem generous and trustworthy is to be generous and trustworthy.

Then there are matters involving the group as a whole. If you run away when the group is closing in on the mammoth, you won’t get invited to future hunting parties. Everyone in the group has an interest in avoiding destructive conflicts, but also in ensuring that other members pull their weight. This would explain the sense of fairness, the urge to punish, and, since punishing itself is difficult and dangerous, the urge to punish those who don’t want to do their fair share of punishing.

We could consider these things in terms of the survival and reproductive chances of individuals, or of the welfare of the group as a whole. Indeed, the quickest way to start a fight among biologists, is to ask about the relative importance of individual and group selection. I am not well-informed enough to contribute greatly here, beyond pointing out that humans, like ants, practice genocide. This can alter the genetic composition of a region’s population within a single generation, as claimed (mendaciously, I trust) in the Book of Joshua, and as seems to have happened in central Asia during the Mongol invasions.

If we are looking for hardwired elements of morality, we should consider the behaviour of children, and of animals. We know that babies can imitate expressions within an hour of birth. Humans at age one show concern at another’s distress, and consoling behaviour such as cuddling, and, by age two, have a clearly developed sense of fairness. So do chimpanzees, and even monkeys, along with cooperation, reciprocity, and peace-making, as Frans de Waal shows in a not-to-be missed 15 minute TED lecture. There is plenty here, without invoking the supernatural, for our evolving moral sense to build on, and the softhearted, it would seem, have the better of the argument.

But what is good?

Evolution, as we have seen, can explain many desirable moral traits, such as sympathy, a sense of fairness, and forgiveness. But it can equally well explain nepotism, xenophobia, and vengefulness. Nepotism is just kin selection in action. Xenophobia is preference of our own group to other groups, and vengefulness will quickly show those around us that we are not to be messed with. What about the double-edged virtues of loyalty, obedience, physical courage, and patriotism? We recoil with horror from the physical courage of the suicide bomber, and can no longer understand the devotion to country that led millions inBritainand continentalEuropeto volunteer for the trenches in 1914. As for obedience,Darwin gave this a central place in his account of morality, but we, after the horrors of the past century, immediately ask, obedience to what, and loyalty to whom?

And when it comes to religious faith, or even to political ideology, we find what seemed to be unbridgeable gaps. We can all understand the value of shared beliefs in establishing a group identity, but we still have the comical spectacle of those who insist on membership, while denouncing the group’s religious underpinnings.[1] Most readers of this column will regard beliefs without evidence as unwarranted, and think it virtuous to discard them. Yet there are others who claim that accepting this or that set of beliefs without evidence is the very basis of virtue, enough to justify the difference between salvation, and eternal torment. Or, perhaps more acceptably to some readers, there are the self-styled objectivists, such as Ayn Rand, who regard selfishness as both rational and moral, and sympathy as a form of weakness. J.K. Galbraith ridiculed such positions as “one of man’s oldest exercises in moral philosophy; that is, the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness”, but I do not see how to refute it. I accept Hume’s distinction between factual and moral judgements, between “is” and “ought”, and as a result, much to my discomfort, I find myself with no way of claiming that my personal morality has any more validity than my aesthetic preferences. I do not like this conclusion, and would be grateful to any reader who can rescue me from it.

This piece developed from a panel discussion with Keith Gilmour (RMPE teacher, Glasgow Brights, Centre for Unintelligent Design) and Simon Barrow (theologian, Ekklesia) at the Edinburgh International Science festival. My first general interest book, From Stars to Stalagmites, will be published by World Scientific in June;

[1] For example, atheists, such as Jerry Coyne or myself, who insist that they are “cultural Jews”.

Creationist Conspiracy?

by Mark Edon

Sceptical reader, follow me for a few moments as we embark on a thought experiment and imagine a world in which Homeopaths have adopted a clever and devious new tactic.  Not content with their current markets and profit levels they have come up with a strategy to boost their sales in the longer term.  In our alternate reality Homoeopaths have carefully developed an extensive set of claims about critical thinking, science and modern chemistry that poke holes in our current understanding of reality.  They have written what appears to be a chemistry text book, “Exploring Chemistry” that doesn’t even mention Homeopathy.  Instead of pushing the magical properties of water “Exploring Chemistry” presents a wide range of material including cleverly extracted sentences from genuine contemporary papers that seem to cast doubt on some basic aspects of covalent bond theory.  Ionic bonding theory is examined from both sides of an apparently vigorous and far reaching dispute.  Genuine discussions about the exact values of the strength of particular bonds between atoms are used to subtly suggest that there is a lot we don’t understand and that the whole edifice of chemical theory is built on shaky foundations.  Comments from scientists regarding rival hypotheses are carefully mined and presented to support the general theme of the book; the whole field of chemistry is replete with dispute and ready for a major paradigm shift.  There are even careful extracted quotes from respected Chemists arguing about where Hydrogen should be placed in the Periodic Table.  Truly Chemistry is a wobbly edifice.  Carefully worked out results and conclusions are dismissed as mere assumptions.  The implication being that, if these assumptions turn out to be wrong, this will put the whole theoretical framework of modern chemistry at risk.  Finely nuanced debates about theoretical interpretations of the evidence are presented as evidence of a field rife with disagreement.  Modern chemistry is referred to as “neo-Daltonism”, and 20th-century developments (semiconductor doping, nuclear chemistry) are quite correctly presented as showing the limitations of Dalton’s 19th-century atomic theory. Using all-or-nothing logic, we are invited to infer that there is now serious scientific disagreement as to whether or not chemistry is actually true at all.  Copious chapter end-notes are awash with references to peer-reviewed articles (many of which actually demonstrate exactly the opposite results to those implied in the text -but it needs careful and informed reading of the original literature to discover this).

“Explore Chemistry” also includes well written chapters on critical thinking and how science is done, these chapters stick to the truth and are well enough written that even Skeptic would approve of them.  These chapters put the casual reader off guard.

In our thought experiment this textbook does not languish in alternative medicine book shops.  It has been sent to every high school in the UK with an accompanying letter of recommendation from a tenured science professor at a reputable UK university stating boldly that the book conforms with the National Curriculum and is an excellent resource for students and teachers.  The book was mailed to school librarians who were asked to put it into the library science section and to request more free copies as required.  Public libraries and universities received similar mailings.  Thousands of these book were sent out.  Already homeopathy sales are slowly creeping upwards.

In the world of this thought experiment I am sure that Skeptics would be doing something about it.  For a moment imagine that you had found out about “Explore Chemistry” and so you decided to ring a national association of school librarians to warn them about what was going on.  Imagine what you think when you manage to speak to the chief executive of this librarian’s association and they tell you that they “don’t take sides on matters of scientific controversy, and to be honest, this kind of call really isn’t welcome.  In this country we have free and open debate, librarians aren’t censors and the children should be allowed to see both sides and to judge for themselves” click.

Ok you can return to reality now.  None of this has actually happened with homeopaths and hopefully it is a fairly unlikely future development.

But this is exactly what has already happened with Creationism here in the UK.

I’ll pause there for a moment while you take that in.

A textbook?  Yes “Explore Evolution”  No mention of creationism?  No.  What about Intelligent Design?  No.  With sections on critical thinking and the scientific method? Yes.  Twisting and distorting quotes and papers?  Yes.  Undermining biology in general and all the rest of that you just said?  Yes.  What even that call to the head of the librarians?  Yes - that happened to me.

The book is called “Explore Evolution” and was originally written for the US market, where the vigilance of our good friends in the National Center for Science Education combined with a constitutional ban on the promotion of religion in state funded schools upheld by court ruling banning the promotion of creation science and intelligent design have engendered an evolutionary arms race that has produced a superbly adapted species of creationism that consists entirely of portraying modern biology as crummy science. The book is genuinely impressive.  It looks good, is logically laid out, well presented, very well referenced and chock full of sweet smelling and beautifully presented shite, disabusing us of the popular wisdom that turds can’t be polished.

OK let’s put this into some kind of perspective.  Creationism only hits the headlines here in the UK from time to time.  This usually results from the antics of some Creationist numpties (I use the term advisedly).  Here I follow Simon Singh’s advice on the use of the term with connotations of shallowness and silliness but no underlying malice aforethought.  Urbandictionary2 gives us this;

                        “Scottish usage: a) Someone who (sometimes unwittingly) by speech or action demonstrates a lack of knowledge or misconception of a particular subject or situation to the amusement of others. b) A good humoured admonition, a term of endearment. a) “No. That wisnae wit she meant, ya big numpty!””.

Creationists proclaiming their intention to teach “both sides” or that “evolution is just a theory after all isn’t it?” surely deserve to be told “No. That wisnae wit it means, ya nig numpty!”.

Open Creationism gets the wider public, and Skeptics in particular, excited and there is generally a vociferous backlash of outrage, scorn and derision.  Newspaper articles are written.  Comment threads get very long.  MPs are written to.  Usually it fades away in time.

But Explore Evolution is not produced by numpties, who, as Simon pointed out, are usually sadly misinformed and generally well intentioned but just incredibly bad at knowing just how stupid they are being.  Explore Evolution is produced by biology deniers.  Simon wanted to avoid this “d” word in the AGW debate as it had associations with Holocaust denial in which people twist the facts deliberately to serve a deeper and more sinister political and racist agenda.  But “denier” is an appropriate term for some Creationists.  The folks who wrote Explore Evolution had to put an awful lot of effort into twisting things to serve their agenda. Explore Evolution was produced by people with a decent grasp of modern biology who are simply trying to serve their own political and religious agenda by lying about it.  Think about it - they produced pretty good sections on critical thinking and the way in which science works and then they wrote the rest of the book to promote their concealed agenda.  As in my fictitious homoepathic example, they refer to present-day biology as “neo-Darwinism”, point to 20th or even 21st century extensions of the 19th century theory to suggest non-existent fundamental inadequacies of biological science, and go so far as to present separate creation (which they call the “orchard model” of life) as a viable alternative.  That’s why I think they deserve the “d” word.

The book has no mention at all of Creationism or of Intelligent Design (Creationism dressed in a lab coat).  In fact it is astoundingly well disguised.  A friend of mine is a lecturer in science education and will sometimes ask groups of aspiring science teachers to look over a selection of textbooks.  He includes good and bad textbooks, an intelligent design book and a Creationist book as well as Explore Evolution.  Often they fail to spot that Explore Evolution is a creationist tract and pop it on the pile with the genuine text books.  These are folks with science degrees. (BTW if anyone is interested in doing some work on this to produce some evidence regarding existing science teachers please get in touch)

The truly wonderful NCSE put together a comprehensive web site full of a detailed analysis and exposure of all the content of Explore Evolution.  At the BCSE we put together a shorter UK version of this mass of evidence which you can see and download for free here we cover off the relevant curriculum issues and guidance together with a suggestion for a letter to your local school librarian.  Please let us know how you get on.

This is not the only recent example of this kind of thing.

The Times Education Supplement Scotland recently published an article in print and on line announcing the launch of a new “educational” website. This site was promoted to creationist numpties up and down the UK at the talks given by Intelligent Design proponent Michael Behe in his recent lecture tour of churches.

One of the things BCSE does is to try to keep track of creationist activities and plans by asking members to attend creationist meetings and report back to us.  We had several reports that the WAU site was promoted at Behe’s talks as being “perfect for children to prepare challenging questions for their science teachers”.

Oh, by the by, we did write to the TES.  In fact we wrote more than once.  First we pointed out that in no conceivable way could the contents of WAU be considered a useful resource as it was full of pseudoscience and in fact such materials are explicitly ruled out for use in science classes as unsuitable by the existing teachers guidelines and that Michael Gove has also repeated this since he became the education secretary.  The initial reply seemed to imply that the editor thought that being “sceptical of evolution” was actually a tenable scientific position and our second email linking to our analysis and asking for equal treatment has so far been ignored.  The web site was augmented by some quotes from the Department for Education last year, apparently endorsing the material for use in schools.  BCSE has since uncovered that WAU have been ignoring government requests to remove these misleading quotes since December 2011.

I think that Skeptics should be just as active in the promotion of good science education as we are in the fight against the promotion of nonsense.  This means that we should be vociferous and active re MPs and schools and in our communications to the public.  This is all part of the same fight for libraries, for good high schools and good university science education.

The US should be a warning for us - recent results1 show that in parts of the USA, when asked to describe how they teach evolution 28% self describe as an “advocate of evolutionary biology”, 13% as an advocate of creationism and 60% as an advocate of neither.

Two important factors enable such a situation to have arisen.  The first is the lack of a National Curriculum in the US.  There we see a fragmentation of school management with effectively 15,000 curricula.  Free schools anyone?  The second factor and the one prevalent in the existence of the 60% group, is a wish to avoid controversy with or pressure from parents, combined with a lack of confidence in the material.  Shall we stop teaching teachers?

Anecdotal evidence suggests that pressure not to teach evolution can already be found here and there in the UK, and, since we have no constitutional ban on the promotion of religion in schools, one could apply to run a Creationist free school that would operate entirely with the current system, using public money,  and have children taught in school by other teachers, including the Head in assemblies, that their science teacher is either a fool or deliberately lying to them.  In fact BCSE has highlighted several such applications already, in Newark, Newcastle and Sheffield. Michael Gove has gone some way to try to prevent this, he has stated that presenting Creationism as a valid scientific position in any lesson is not acceptable in UK schools and has changed the free school funding agreement to prevent them presenting anything not supported by mainstream science as a valid scientific position is not allowed.  This does not apply to mainstream schools or academies.

For these reasons I think that the sceptical community should take more notice of Creationists, in particular the actions of the deniers and their attempts to infiltrate mainstream science classrooms.

But there is also another much bigger reason.  I think that a good case can be made that Creationists are the high achievers of the non-sceptical world.  Whilst it is true that AGW numpties do deny evidence from a range of fields of science, and quite a healthy pile of evidence it is too, they are lightweights when compared to your average Creationists.  To Creationists the underlying and unifying principle of biology is, of course, wrong, but to make this fit their own viewpoint so too is most of astronomy, and, as this is built on physics, then they must also cast serious doubt on large parts of physics as well.  Of course Geology and Chemistry, as far as they relate to the age of the earth, the way living things work and even the way in which stars and galaxies develop, are all also cheerfully thrown away.  Compared to this level of non-sceptical achievement, the amount of knowledge that must be denied or ignored by, say, homeopaths, is tiny.

Faced with having to get new recruits to make such a huge leap into their worldview, Creationists go out of their way to engender a general mistrust of science together with an automatic reflex reaction against almost anything science comes up with.  Nearly every Creationist I have met is a Global Warming numpty, against advances in GM crops on principle and has grave doubts about vaccines.

A recent discussion with a young Christian who happened by chance to sit next to me on the train one day led to a discussion of her faith and I brought up the subject of biology and evolution.  She told me that after hearing a recent church speaker, her and many of her friends, now felt that they had been lied to at school by the science teachers because apparently evolution was nowhere near the firm conclusion they had been told about and in fact she now knew it was more like just a big guess.  Her and her friends are now starting families of their own.  I wonder what attitude to school science lessons their children will have?  She attends a church in Newcastle that are currently applying to run a free school.

Creationists claim that science is an atheist conspiracy, which effectively makes it a work of Satan.  Our society is built on science.  Our future prosperity, not just the current economic recovery but the future place of the UK in world history will be greatly influenced by our place in the world’s scientific community and such conspiracy thinking is therefore deeply worrying.

Mark would like to point out that his oft-used web name “psiloiordinary” is an “ancients tabletop wargaming” reference and nothing to do with woo.  Find out more about Creationism in the UK and what you can do about it on the BCSE blog:


1. Berkman MB, Plutzer E. Defeating creationism in the courtroom, but not in the classroom. Science. 2011;331(6016):404. Available at: [Accessed March 20, 2012].

2. [Accessed March 20, 2012]

Sleeping with one eye open

By Peter Harrison

The family Delphinidae, known commonly as the oceanic dolphins, are a clade of toothed whales (Odontoceti) within the order Cetacea. Most people have a decent understanding of what dolphins are, being smaller than most whales, and entirely carnivorous. Like all Cetacea, the dolphins are marine mammals with terrestrial ancestors. DNA sequence data and fossil evidence indicate that millions of years ago, these ancestors (Artiodactyl - even-toed ungulates) made the transition from a land-dwelling to aquatic lifestyle. The extreme change of environment resulted in selection pressures forming a diverse range of adaptations that allow the Delphinidae and close relatives to survive in the oceans. Some of these adaptations are quite well understood, while others are currently the subject of intense research and debate among scientists.

I’d like to give a quick introduction to two fairly obvious adaptations (body-shape and skin-shedding) to give you a taste of the problems faced by marine mammals, and the adaptations that have evolved to solve them. Then, I’d like to take a look at something I find most interesting: the evolution of some truly weird and wonderful sleep phenomena.

We’ll start with the most obvious. A common adaptation in marine mammals is a fusiform (sleek, streamlined) body shape. Even the polar bear has a relatively more fusiform shape than other species of bears. The marine environment makes quick movement difficult due to the drag and resistance caused by the water. A fusiform body shape aids swimming and this is essential for members of the Delphinidae as they chase and catch fast-moving prey such as schools of fish. Both the fusiform shape of dolphins and their reduced limb size decreases the drag of water resistance. A common theme in Delphinidae research is that an adaptation often helps solve more than one environmental problem. Selection pressures may have also brought about the fusiform shape due to thermoregulation. A lot of body heat is lost to the ocean, so marine mammals have evolved a range of adaptations in order to conserve heat efficiently. The fusiform shape decreases the organism’s surface area exposed to the environment, and this reduces heat loss. In fact, we see evidence for this adaptation when we observe the species in deeper, cooler waters that tend to have larger bodies and smaller flippers than coastal species.

The benefits of a fusiform body shape have been relatively well understood for many years. Other phenotypic traits of the Delphinidae have only recently been intensively studied and new explanations for adaptations are emerging. One curious trait is the speed that dolphins shed their skin. Most animals such as insects and reptiles shed a whole layer of skin in one rapid growth known as moulting. In contrast, us mammals continuously shed individual dead skin cells. This process can take a couple of days to completely replace all the dead skin on the mammalian body in most terrestrial species. Dolphins replace every dead skin cell on their body within 2 hours. This striking difference in the rate of sloughing has interested many biologists, but also physicists. This is a fine example of researchers studying naturally evolved solutions to problems and developing new technologies that improve our vehicles and other applications. For example, scientists have looked at how birds and insects fly when trying to develop efficient technologies for air travel. Similarly, some physicists are interested in knowing what adaptations allow dolphins to maximize their speed in water in the hopes that future technologies could mimic the adaptations. As mentioned previously, dolphins have adaptations that allow them to maximize swimming speed in order to catch prey and avoid predators. Hypothesizing that the dramatic rate of sloughing aided swimming speed, scientists in Japan used sophisticated computer simulations modeling every single skin cell and exactly how each is shed from the body of a dolphin. These techniques revealed that the soft, “waviness” of dolphin skin reduces drag and shedding often maintains this condition. More importantly for their own research, they also discovered that drag was reduced significantly because of the shed skin reducing turbulence. The tiny flakes of skin that are lost end up reducing the number-density of hairpin vortices that occur in the flow around the surface of the skin. With less hairpin vortices forming, the drag is once again reduced and the dolphin’s swimming speed is increased. This knowledge might someday be useful in the future design of boats or submarines and underwater equipment.

So, body-shape and the speed of skin-shedding have evolved to help survive in a marine environment. As you can imagine, these characteristics wouldn’t have been found in the terrestrial ancestors. Switching to life in the oceans has required some dramatic changes in body-structure. But we can see these adaptations before our very eyes. We’re talking about fairly obvious physical structures. To discuss the adaptations that I find most curious, we need to consider the less obvious, and think about what’s happening in the brain.

A hot topic in Delphinidae research is the neurological activity and behaviour associated with sleep. Dolphins are known to sleep for 33% of the day. All mammals sleep, but many marine mammals, including all the Cetacea and therefore Delphinidae, demonstrate unusual sleep phenomena not seen among terrestrial mammals. Viewing the various sleep phenomena of Cetaceans as adaptations to a marine lifestyle, biologists have also recently been attempting to identify the original selection pressures that may explain their evolution. Unfortunately, mental processes and behaviour aren’t the most obvious things to discover from the fossil record.

Sleeping behaviour has been observed in whales and dolphins for almost a century. In the early 20th century it was already understood that dolphins sometimes slept with one eye open, and sometimes appeared to sleep while still swimming. Early attempts to explain these behaviours resulted in many novel ideas (especially during the 60s) including the hypothesis that dolphins were capable of unihemispheric sleep, and that breathing was a voluntary process. Dolphins have a brain with two hemispheres, like all mammals. In 1964, J.C. Lilly believed that dolphins were able to put one hemisphere of their brain to sleep while the other stayed awake, explaining why one eye would remain open during these times. His explanation was that breathing was entirely voluntary in dolphins, and they therefore needed to stay partially awake at all times in order to swim to the surface to take a breath when required. Since the 1960s, Lilly’s novel ideas regarding unihemispheric sleep have been confirmed by strong evidence, but his ideas about voluntary breathing have been rejected. Even so, this research still isn’t well understood by many non-scientists and it is still a very common misunderstanding that dolphins only breath voluntarily. It simply isn’t true.

Complex anesthetizing experiments performed by McCormick in 1969 contradicted Lilly’s earlier prediction, and demonstrated that the respiration of dolphins can be cortically controlled or autonomic, just like other mammals. McCormick also demonstrated that while sleeping with one hemisphere at a time, dolphins are partially aware of their surroundings, able to react to other organisms, and swim continuously. It turns out that all Cetacea are capable of unihemispheric sleep (and lack REM). Biologists obviously felt this dramatic characteristic might be explained by the extreme environment the dolphins have evolved to survive, but the adaptation first had to be understood before selection pressures could be considered.

Unihemispheric slow wave sleep (USWS) in dolphins (seen in the image above) is characterized by the brain producing slow delta waves in one hemisphere, while the other half shows reduce voltage activity. Put simply: dolphins sleep with one side of their brain at a time, rather than putting both sides to sleep like we do. In the bottlenose dolphin, Tursiops truncatus, each half of the brain sleeps for approximately 4 hours a day. On the theoretical basis that this interhemispheric EEG asymmetry was an adaptation to an aquatic environment, studies began to focus on other aquatic mammals (non-Cetaceans). Since the 1980s, sleep has been studied extensively in pinnipeds, manatees, the walrus, the sea otter, and even the hippopotamus, and it turns out USWS isn’t exclusive to the Cetacea. All pinnipeds belonging to the family Otariidae were shown to sleep unihemispherically. USWS was also observed in the the walrus and the manatees. Entirely different clades of aquatic mammals with unique terrestrial origins demonstrated USWS, which could be interpreted as evidence that it is a convergently evolved adaptation to the aquatic environment. Further evidence is that the fur seal, Callorhinus ursinus, shows great variability in its sleeping behaviour. USWS is observed in this species while it sleeps in water, but ordinary bihemispheric sleep (like ours) occurs when sleeping on land. Several proposals have been made for the selection pressures that may have driven these sleep adaptations for an aquatic environment.

The first possibility is that USWS evolved simply due to the necessity to breathe. For most mammals, sleeping results in a relatively stationary state. Just picture yourself sleeping in bed. If dolphins fell fully asleep underwater and didn’t move, they would drown, unable to reach the surface. But during USWS, dolphins are able to move freely and swim to the surface to breathe when required. Diazepam can induce bilateral slow wave sleep (like ours) in dolphins, and they are unable to breathe in this state, despite clearly trying to. This means dolphins have evolved to the point where USWS is now required for them to breathe. USWS may have evolved in order to assist breathing, but a much simpler solution seen in other aquatic mammals is to dramatically improve how long breath can be held, and sleep through that period. Perhaps necessity to breathe played a role in the evolution of USWS, but it seems likely that there were other pressures involved.

A second possibility is that USWS evolved to aid sentinel behaviour even while asleep. The ancestors of dolphins and other modern Cetacea made the transition gradually from terrestrial to fully aquatic. Some ancestors would have spent some time on land and in water. Eventually, some of the early aquatic ancestors would have spent all their time in the water, but would not yet have evolved the adaptations required to dive for long periods of time. These ancestors would have to sleep at the surface of the water, where aquatic animals are most at risk of predation. By keeping one eye open and remaining partially awake, the ancestor could watch for danger while getting some sleep at the same time. This may help explain the evolution of USWS together with loss of REM.

Marine mammals can be difficult to study because they live in such an extreme environment. New discoveries are being made every year, but clearly there is still much to be learned. Some adaptations are well understood, but these are often examples of adapted physical anatomy. The evolution of behaviour and neurology are harder to study because behaviour and sleep do not fossilize. Biologists have taken steps to understanding the early evolution of these adaptations we see in modern Delphinidae and close relatives, but there is still a lot of debate over which selection pressures were more powerful in shaping the dolphins we see today. Judging from the burst of research seen recently, perhaps we’ll be more confident of the answers in a few short years. Or maybe not. I’ll keep an eye on it.


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