Monthly Archives: September 2011

Evolution: the genesis of enlightenment

At what point does theory become scientific fact? When the body of evidence for outweighs the body of evidence against? Or when the body of evidence supporting the theory is so overwhelming, the mere idea of counter-evidence seems vastly unlikely?

I’m not sure. Perhaps there is no clear-cut boundary between “theory” and “fact”.

Many scientists, including the scientist and atheist Professor Dawkins, the naturalist and superhero Sir David Attenborough, and Reverend Professor Michael Reiss, the former president of the Royal Society, are sure that evolution is no longer a theory, but a fact.

And I agree with them.

An article in today’s Daily Telegraph publicised a new campaign calling upon the Government to tackle the threat posed by creationism, or “intelligent design”. The newspaper printed the word “threat” just so; with quotation marks around it. I have no compunction in calling creationism a threat, in the most worrying and real sense of the word.

Creationism is one of the more unsavoury ideas to make it over here from America – and it is truly frightening that it is becoming accepted and widely encouraged by those at the top of their political game. Not just one, but two potential presidential candidates believe that a god created the Universe in six days and rested on the seventh. This in itself is alarming; but they are encouraging the teaching of creationism in schools. Not in religious education classes, you understand; but in science classes.

New Scientist magazine calls it anti-science. I cannot think of a better term, and I see it all the time. It is not just creationism; homeopathy, chiropractors, faith healers, crystal peddlers, and those who think that AIDS can be cured by the judicious application of a cabbage are all slowly but surely getting a foothold in our day-to-day lives – occasionally such beliefs are harmless, often they are questionable, and sometimes they are downright dangerous.

There is not a shred – not one shred – of scientific evidence to support creationism. As we became more enlightened, we tried to reconcile the story of Genesis with the evidence presented by men and women of science, and that was to be commended. It led to a spectacular understanding of a spectacular Universe, made – if anything – more awesome (in the true sense of the word) the more we knew.

Evidence for the fact of evolution is everywhere: it is in the rocks in the shape of fossils; it is in biology, as we look back towards the last universal common ancestor; it is in chemistry, where we can trace molecules back to the building blocks of life. Within those enormous subject areas, the evidence for evolution is overwhelming, and it is the only idea that makes sense of our planet.

More insidious than the denial of evolution is the anti-science rhetoric that accompanies it. To paraphrase Paul Nurse, who shared the Nobel prize for medicine in 2001 and who is president of the Royal Society, the following is disturbing:

  • Stem cell research, that promises to cure diseases and immeasurably improve the lives of many who suffer on a daily basis, is an evil practice that should be stopped immediately because it involves “the wholesale destruction of human life”. Perhaps the irony of that one is lost on its detractors?
  • Variations in climate are “natural, cyclical environmental trends”. This is true. But we CAN say with assurance that some weather change is anthropomorphic, and that human activity IS creating changes that may be irreversible. Climate problems in Texas are not best solved through “days of prayer for rain”.
  • And that intelligent design is “a legitimate scientific theory that should be taught in science class”.

Provide me with evidence, please, that intelligent design is worthy of discussion in a science class. I am not entirely happy with it having a place in a religious education class as anything other than a story from the Bible. But the idea of it being taught to children as a legitimate scientific theory makes me recoil in horror, and fills me with fear for what our future holds. We have done a lot of damage to our planet – and to humanity – over the recent past, and we cannot undo that damage without scientific advancement. We didn’t understand what we were doing; now we do, and we have to understand how to solve the problems we have created. Going backwards is not the answer – it almost never is! This is not about mocking religion or those of faith, and it isn’t about attacking others for their beliefs. It is about science, reason and evidence, and our future.

I do not have to prove that creationism is a fallacy – you can’t provide evidence for something that doesn’t exist. It is up to those expounding creationism as a legitimate theory – or as fact – to provide evidence to support it.

Faith doesn’t exclude science and reason! The Reverend Professor Michael Reiss, the former president of the Royal Society who has put his name to the campaign mentioned above, has called evolution “God’s doing”. I know many people of faith who are intelligent, reasonable, reasoning and thinking human beings who have no trouble reconciling their belief in a god with the evidence presented by science. Why, then, are creationists forcing their beliefs into our schools, our media, our children?

There are some who would speed humanity towards a new dark age. Do not let this happen: embrace science and knowledge, make sure your children are enlightened and open minded, and stay reasonable in the face of the unreasoning.

Too. Damn. Busy.

I do not have time to write about any of the things I would like to right now, so in the meantime, I would like to direct you to the Bloggess.

I’ve only read three posts, and I had to go for a little lie-down. I need a giant metal chicken.

Quantum leap

It appears that physics and I get on rather well. That is probably apparent from the recent fangirl posts; but now I have it on paper too.

A grand total of 93% for TMA07. I am delighted; it wasn’t one of my better TMAs, and I really wasn’t sure if I’d grasped it properly. I made a couple of silly mistakes – but I can’t complain, and it’s focused my eye for detail a little more closely on the detail!

Here’s a musical interlude:

Book 8 has been pretty interesting so far; I’m searching for life elsewhere in the Universe (as ever) and the journey began by looking at the origins of life on Earth. How far back can we see? Are those tiny squiggles in the rock microfossils, or random arrangements of crystals, or just eye-worms in the heads of the scientists in question?

However long ago life sprang into life on Earth, we now have it on fairly good authority that the building blocks, at least, of life came from the stars, via the intervening space.

Comets brought water; meteorites brought organic compounds.

We haven’t found life anywhere else in the Universe just yet. The chances are it’s just too far away. But it’s crazy to believe that we’re the only life in the staggeringly vast space that we call reality. There are plenty of star systems like our Solar System, and no reason to suggest that there are no other Earth-like planets out there inhabiting that narrow band of space just the right distance from their star – and who knows what lives there?

I like to think that’s where some of the creatures from mythology abide – Pegasus, the unicorns and the odd satyr, together with pixies, fairies and well-adjusted teenagers.

Will we ever visit a different world? Perhaps. Not by conventional means, but who knows what may be possible in the future.

One thing I do know for sure: this planet of ours is extraordinary and beautiful, and thinking about the chances of everything happening just at the right place and time is mindblowing. Not miraculous; just absolutely bloody fantastic.

Now, go and look at Symphony of Science.