Tag Archives: creationism

Once more on theory and law in science

It is well known that the popular usage of “theory” as meaning an unproven idea differs from how scientists use the word. And that allows creationists to wreak all sorts of “only a theory” mischief.

Defenders of science, however, often over-react to this charge by asserting that, in science, “theory” means a well-tested and well-evidenced account. For example the US National Academy of Sciences makes a well-meaning but wrong statement, defining:

Theory: In science, a well-substantiated explanation of some aspect of the natural world that can incorporate facts, laws, inferences, and tested hypotheses.

In fact, scientists use the word to mean merely “explanation”, or perhaps “set of explanatory ideas”, and it carries little connotation either way as to whether that explanation is tested or proven. For example “string theory” is highly speculative and unproven. Similarly, we still talk about Newton’s theory of gravity even though we know that it is only approximately correct and that it has been superseded by Einstein’s theories. Continue reading

Richard Dawkins should continue to speak his mind on Islam

As just about everyone will already know, Richard Dawkins has been causing quite a stir by his tweeting about Islam. The criticism is that Dawkins’s tweeting is “racist”, “xenophobic”, “Islamophobic”, “bigoted”, “dishonest”, “counterproductive”, and that it enables the racism of the likes of the EDL.

Let me admit that I’m ambivalent about Dawkins’s use of Twitter, I think he’d make a far better blogger than tweeter, and he comes off much better given sufficient words to explain himself and show his eloquence. But Dawkins is clearly enjoying himself and gathering an ever-increasing Twitter following. He’s also quite capable of defending himself when necessary.

It seems to me that the criticism of Dawkins stems largely from one of the oldest memes, that it is uncouth to criticise religion. If he were criticising, say, communism or capitalism in similar terms no-one would bat an eye. But when he criticises Islam people try their best to interpret his language as “racist” and thus unacceptable.

One complaint is that Dawkins’s language is “careless” in that his language can be “co-opted into a wider discourse that Islam is in a sort of clash of civilisations with the West”, or as another critic puts it “The last thing secularism needs is a clash-of-civilisations narrative”.

Well, I disagree. I hold the principle of secularism to be of the highest importance for a decent, functioning and progressive society. Indeed I would argue that a key reason underpinning the West’s current economic dominance is that the West accepts the separation of church and state, even in highly religious nations such as the USA. This principle of being able to speak freely and question everything is vital to the development of ideas that drive progress. Continue reading

Did life happen “by chance”? Yes! Chance is not randomness

It is said that General Montgomery kept a picture of Field Marshal Rommel on his desk. In order to outwit Rommel he had to understand how he thought. Arguing against creationists is an on-going battle, and to persuade effectively we need to understand how creationists think. Creationists will commonly refuse to believe that the living world we see around us “arose by chance”, and the scientist will reply: But you misunderstand evolution, yes mutations happen by chance, but evolution overall is not a random process.

I was reminded of this by Tweets by science broadcaster Brian Cox, the particle physicist who is enthusing large swathes of British teenagers about science, and managing the near impossible, getting actual science content onto prime-time BBC television. Professor Cox was annoyed by a misunderstanding promulgated on BBC Radio 4’s Thought for the Day religious slot.

Brian Cox "chance" tweet 2

Brian Cox "chance" tweet 1

First, what does a scientist mean by the above terms? The mutations that are the raw material for evolution are “random”. In statistics “random” means that different outcomes have the same probability, and in this specific context “random” means that the mutations occur regardless of whether they are harmful or beneficial to the organism. There is nothing that “knows” which mutations would be harmful or beneficial, and so there is nothing that can bias the mutations towards one or the other.

Natural selection, however, is the opposite of random, it is a sieve that preferentially selects the mutations that are beneficial (organisms with these mutations leave more descendents) and preferentially rejects the mutations that are harmful (organisms with them leave fewer descendents). As Professor Cox tweeted, natural selection is non-random. The combination of random mutations and non-random selection of those mutations is the engine of evolution, the engine that adapts an organism to its environment, leading to the whole wonderful panoply of life. As summarised by Richard Dawkins: “Life results from the non-random survival of randomly varying replicators”.

If “chance” were a synonym of “random” then the complexity of today’s life would not have originated “by chance”, since it results from the highly directional process of Darwinian evolution, which is a one-way ratchet continually selecting organisms that better fit their environment.

But is that really what people mean by “chance”? Well, no. In common parlance, “chance” is not a statement about probability, it is statement about intent and design. A “chance outcome” is one that no-one intended. The most salient aspect of a “game of chance” is not so much randomness but that crucial elements are not under conscious control, in contrast to, say, chess. If you say “I bumped into my friend Alex by chance”, you are not making a statement about the probability of your meeting, you are saying that neither of you had planned or intended it.

Thus the primary definition of “chance” is (e.g. from Oxford Dictionaries) “the occurrence of events in the absence of any intention or design”. Does life result from a process without any intention or design? The scientific answer is “Yes”! To a scientist life’s complexity does occur “by chance”!

Replying to a creationist who refuses to accept that life arose “by chance” by talking about random and non-random process is missing the point. The creationist makes a much more profound rejection of the idea. After all, the creationist has no problem with processes that lack intelligent intervention but are still non-random and directional. For example rain water running downwards and eventually running into the sea is directional, but such processes (the creationist thinks) don’t produce complexity, they don’t produce life.

The creationist is a vitalist, he doesn’t accept that something living can arise from non-living material or from merely physical processes, whether directional or not. To him life can only arise from previous life, and ultimately from a god. And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.” Dust alone would not have sufficed.

The creationist doesn’t accept Darwin’s Dangerous Idea that life can arise from non-life, that both living and non-living matter are physical material, obeying only physical processes, and that the difference between them is just the result of replication, replication after replication, with random variation and non-random selection of the variants.

The idea that, over vast eons of time, over billions of generations, such a process could generate complexity, is unfathomable to a creationist. It is unfathomable because his brain is a product of that process, produced to do a job of promoting more replication, and thus his brain’s intuition is tuned to understanding changes that can occur within human lifetimes, not to understanding the eons of Earth’s deep time.

Thus the creationist intuitively rejects the idea that Darwinian evolution can produce complexity, when in truth it is the only process that can produce complexity of the degree seen to dazzling magnificence in Earth’s life. To a creationist such complexity could only have arisen by intelligent purpose.

In saying that “life could not have arisen by chance” it is not the presence of randomness that the creationist is complaining about, it is the absence of intention and purpose. And thus a response about random and non-random processes can only be a small part of the reply.

Can science attain truth? Why science is like golf

Scientific knowledge is provisional: it is founded on empirical evidence and our knowledge of empirical evidence will always be incomplete. Thus there is always the possibility of new evidence coming along to show that some area of scientific understanding is wrong.

This leads to a common claim that science can be disregarded because its ideas are always changing. For example, the fundamentalists at Answers in Genesis say:

We agree that scientists should continually refine their views as new information becomes available, but that is precisely the problem … Evolutionary scientists have changed “common knowledge” multiple times over the past century, yet the Bible has not changed. It still clearly teaches that the universe, earth, and dinosaurs were made during a six-day period about 4,000 years before Christ.

And the complaint isn’t only from Biblical literalists. Mark Vernon, a liberal “agnostic Christian” who used to be an Anglican priest, writes in the Guardian:

There are, of course, differences between scientific and religious myths. For one thing, scientific myths are far less long-lived than religious ones. The great faiths of the world daily turn to myths that are thousands of years old and find truth leaping off the page as they read them. Scientific myths, on the other hand, do well if they last more than a century. Who today reads Newton?

Is the complaint fair? To use an analogy, science is like golf, where the “hole” we are aiming for is truth, and by a “true” scientific theory we mean one that matches the empirical reality of our universe. Nature sets the lie of the golf course and the location of the hole, and science tries to find it. So we revise our theories when better empirical evidence comes along, and each time we do that we halve our distance to the hole. Continue reading

Nazi racial ideology was religious, creationist and opposed to Darwinism

by Coel Hellier

Summary

  • Nazi racial ideology was creationist. Hitler considered that the different human races had been created separately. The Aryan race was the “master” race, created as “God’s highest handiwork”, the other races (Jewish, Black, Slav, etc) were literally “sub-human”. The races had been created by God in their current form (humans had not evolved from other animals).
  • Nazi ideology pointed to both artificial and natural selection as a mechanism preserving the health of a species by weeding out the weaker and less able. This struggle for existence countered a natural tendency for things to decay. To the Nazis this mechanism preserved species in their original (God created) form. They did not consider that natural selection operating over long periods of time caused species to evolve; they regarded the species as fixed.
  • Hitler considered that allowing interbreeding between the separately created races would destroy the Aryan race, and thus be a sin against God. He considered it a high imperative to preserve the Aryan race in its primordial excellence. In Mein Kampf he advocated that Jews should be celibate to prevent such interbreeding. Later he developed a “final solution” to this “problem”.
  • Nazi ideologues strongly opposed most Darwinian concepts; they rejected macro-evolution, they rejected the common origin of the different human races, they rejected human evolution from animals. They rejected such doctrines which they saw as depriving man of his soul. They banned Darwin’s works and called his theories an “English sickness”.
  • Hitler saw the Christian churches as having been corrupted by Jews, starting with Paul. He regarded Jesus as an Aryan, and wanted to restore what he saw as the original message of Jesus. The Nazis formed their own church, the “German Christians”, and their own theological institutes, promoting the idea of Jesus as an Aryan. Hitler despised atheism and had “stamped it out” on taking power with the disbanding of the German Freethinker’s League.
  • The German people during the Third Reich were overwhelmingly Christian, with among the highest church-attendance rates in Europe. In a 1939 Census 94% declared themselves Christian. Nearly all of those involved in the Holocaust regarded themselves as Christian; the Auschwitz SS self-labelled as Catholic (42.6%), Protestant (36.5%) or Gottgläubig (20.1%; the word means God-believer or devout, and was the term favoured by the “German Christians”); not one was recorded as “without faith” (atheist). Indeed Himmler declared that: “I have never tolerated an atheist in the ranks of the SS. Every member has a deep faith in God”.
  • Since the war many in the largely-Christian victorious West have conducted a misinformation campaign trying to exonerate religion of any blame for the Nazis, and instead place the blame on atheists and Darwinian ideology. The truth is the opposite. Yet, the misinformation campaign has been sufficiently sucessful that many people still believe it. Creationists, particularly, are still trying to promote this disinformation.

1: Introduction
2: Nazi Racial Theory (de Gobineau)
3: Houston Stewart Chamberlain
4: Hans Günther
5: Hitler and Mein Kampf
6: Creationist denial
7: Religion in the Third Reich
8: Christian Denial
9: Conclusion

1: Introduction

Among those who dislike Darwin’s explanation of human beings as the product of evolution a common accusation is that Darwinian thinking has led to horrors such as the Nazi holocaust. For example the American religious commentator Ann Coulter writes: “From Marx to Hitler, the men responsible for the greatest mass murders of the twentieth century were avid Darwinists” (which is wrong on all the others, not just Hitler). So widespread is the claim that even many who accept that Darwinian evolution has been established as true, well beyond any reasonable doubt, also believe that Darwinian ideas were misused to justify Nazi atrocities. For example the British political commentator Andrew Marr writes that Darwinism was “used to justify … the Nazi holocaust”.

Are these claims correct? Remarkably, for a claim so widely accepted, no they aren’t. Indeed, the Nazi ideology underpinning the extermination of the Jews was opposed to and incompatible with Darwinism, instead being a religious and creationist doctrine.
Continue reading