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Geology for evangelicals


In honor of the opening of Ken Ham’s nefarious Ark “replica” today – you know, the one made out of gopher steel and wood – I decided to post this piece about a book written by evangelical scientists who know better than to treat the book of Genesis as history or science, for evangelical laypersons who either know better than to treat the book of Genesis as history or science, or can be taught to know better.


The book is called The Grand Canyon: Monument to an Ancient Earth, and it is an anthology written by competent people and directed at evangelical Christians. Indeed, the subtitle is, “Can Noah’s Flood Explain the Grand Canyon?” The book, which I have not seen, appears to be lavishly illustrated, with 255 photographs and 104 diagrams and sketches, according to Church & State magazine. It is being sold in all 8 bookstores in the Grand Canyon National Park.

I am getting virtually all my information from an article in the latest issue of Church & State magazine. They note that the book has 11 co-authors, 8 of whom are evangelical Christians, and 3 are agnostics. The authors’ specialties include geology, biology, and paleontology. Church & State quotes Steven Newton of the National Center for Science Education to the effect that the book “does a great job of explaining the science of Grand Canyon’s spectacular geology, as well as helping readers understand how the creationist misuse of Grand Canyon finds no support from science.”

Importantly, the publisher of the book is an evangelical firm, Kregel Publications, which, according to co-author Tim Helble, “was a good match for us because they have … published other books dealing with origins issues and would be able to sell the book in venues where evangelicals can be reached.” The last seems very important to me.

The bulk of the Church & State article is an interview with Mr. Helble, a retired hydrologist with the National Weather Service. Mr. Helble states explicitly that the “11 authors wanted to help counter the misleading information being disseminated by the young-Earth creationist (YEC) ministries.” He recognized the problem in 1994 when he found a book, Grand Canyon: Monument to Catastrophe, edited by PhD geologist Steve Austin, and apparently chock full of errors. Here are a few snippets from the interview:

Three things we agreed to before we started writing were (1) our target audience is people who are uncertain about the age of the Earth, (2) a Christian reader shouldn’t feel like he/she is being ridiculed and (3) a college science degree shouldn’t be needed to understand it. …

Of course the Bible has tremendous value – I just think the young Earthers over-globalize the flood account, fail to see the worldview of the ancient Near East people and miss out on the rich poetic devices used in the early parts of Genesis. …

I think those claiming censorship misunderstand how the scientific process works. You can’t write an article about something like a geologic formation that basically says “the Flood did it,” and expect to have it accepted by a scientific journal. There has to be a quantitatively realistic mechanism consistent with the laws of physics behind what you are proposing. …

Creationism is a third rail in public schools, but there are some ways to inoculate students against it without directly addressing the subject. Schools could to do a better job of teaching how we know the Earth is old. For example, instead of just teaching that sedimentary rocks are made of sediments like sand and silt, students can be shown how fossils are found in such rocks of things that take a long time to form like intact reef systems, termite nests, forest communities and orderly nests of unhatched dinosaur eggs. …

By the way, when a student brings up young-Earth arguments, the worst thing to do is attack his or her faith. All you’re doing then is reinforcing the “us-vs.-them” mindset and helping the young-Earth ministries keep a lifetime follower. …

It certainly seems like there is a clash [between science and religion] if you focus on the extremes – the “new atheists” at one end and the YECs at the other. It’s interesting that both of them insist on a wooden, literal interpretation of Genesis 1-11.

I think religion and science can coexist if they don’t tread on each other’s turf where it’s not appropriate. I’ve seen new atheists use some pretty bad theology, and I think religious people should accept that there are some things that you just have to take on faith – stop trying to find “ultimate proofs” of difficult theological ideas like creation.

I am an old atheist (or, as I prefer to put it, a strong agnostic), and I do not know what is wooden about my interpretation of Genesis, but we will let that go. I think that among Mr. Helble’s most important remarks are that people should not feel that they are being ridiculed (yes, I know it is difficult at times, and the line between gentle satire and ridicule is sometimes uncertain), students should not think their faith is being attacked, and religion and science can coexist if they do not “tread on each other’s turf.” That is, as your local accommodationist, I think he is right that we have to accept religious people as they are, but only as long as they do not make claims that are flatly contrary to scientific fact.

Domesticated: Book review


A number of years ago, I found a family of raccoons living in my chimney.1 I got them out by dropping a trouble light down the flue and turning it on for a few days. According to Richard C. Francis, in his splendid book, Domesticated, animals such as raccoons living in urbanized areas represent the first step toward domesticating those animals.

The full title of the book is Domesticated: Evolution in a Man-Made World, and Francis shows in considerable detail how various animals became domesticated: dogs, cats, pigs, sheep and goats, reindeer, camels, horses, rodents, and perhaps humans, as well as other predators such as raccoons and ferrets. Each scenario is slightly different, each seems well documented, and each has just a little bit of just-so story in it.

The subtitle of this book by frequent PT commenter Carl Drews is “Crossing the Red Sea with faith and science.” Mr. Drews achieved a modicum of fame a few years ago for his master’s thesis, in which he speculated that Moses and his followers had crossed the Sea of Reeds during a wind setdown, that is, an event where the wind blows so hard on a body of water that the water level on the windward side drops, sometimes to 0. It is in some sense the opposite of a storm surge.

Judging by the book, it was a splendid master’s thesis indeed! Mr. Drews carefully evaluated possible locations, chose one, and modeled it, showing that the wind setdown could plausibly have occurred for a plausible wind velocity. See here for Mr. Drews’s own brief description of his work. Sorry, Cecil B. DeMille, no walls of water!

I thought the book went downhill from here. Mr. Drews, though he denies it, is virtually a biblical literalist. To be sure, he is far more sophisticated than, say, Ken Ham or even Hugh Ross. He knows that the parts of the Bible that so bemuse Mr. Ham are poetry and not to be taken seriously. But he states flatly that he believes in the miracles that Jesus of Nazareth purportedly performed and thinks that they were a suspension of natural law. And he believes firmly that the Exodus happened as described in the Bible, so he looks for evidence how it happened, rather than whether it happened. A wind setdown is certainly plausible but has little more hard evidence to support it than the idea that the plagues were caused by the eruption of the Thera volcano.

behe-dunce.jpgMichael Behe is very thrilled that a PNAS paper published this year “confirms a key inference I made in 2007 in The Edge of Evolution.” The Discovery Institute is also thrilled, enough so to reprint Behe’s July 14, 2014 op-ed on ENV as this year’s #4 in the top-story countdown.

Says Behe, regarding what he describes as “the need for multiple, specific changes in a particular malarial protein (called PfCRT) for the development of resistance to chloroquine” :

… thanks to Summers et al. 2014…One of their conclusions is that a minimum of two specific mutations are indeed required for the protein to be able to transport chloroquine. … The need for multiple mutations neatly accounts for why the development of spontaneous resistance to chloroquine is an event of extremely low probability – approximately one in a hundred billion billion (1 in 1020) malarial cell replications – as the distinguished Oxford University malariologist Nicholas White deduced years ago. The bottom line is that the need for an organism to acquire multiple mutations in some situations before a relevant selectable function appears is now an established experimental fact.

No where does either Discovery Institute piece make any mention of Brown biologist Ken Miller’s epic takedown of Behe’s new claims of vindication. More below the fold.

Meditation on The Mind’s Eye


I am a physicist, with a specialty in optics, so I was especially interested in The Mind’s Eye, by Oliver Sacks (not to mention the less well known The Island of the Colorblind). The Mind’s Eye is a fascinating book about the visual system, many of the things that can go wrong with it, and what we learn from them. It is also the book in which Dr. Sacks reveals that he suffers from prosopagnosia, or face blindness; is not a surgeon because he cannot visualize; and functions only with great difficulty now that he has monocular vision as a result of a retinal cancer. I have great difficulty recognizing faces, but nothing approaching prosopagnosia, and it is a marvel to me that he could cover it up for the better part of 80 years.

This novel by Lauren Grodstein is about Andy, a once promising biology professor now languishing in the tenure-track of a third-rank university in New Jersey. Andy teaches a course nicknamed There Is No God, whose principles are these:

1: Evolution is the explanation for everything

2: Darwin is right

3: And people who don’t believe Darwin are wrong

That is about right, at least to first order and as far as biology is concerned, but naturally such an explicit statement is bound to attract attention. Indeed, it attracts the attention of Lionel, a Campus Crusade type who has received permission to take Andy’s course for a second time in order to make a case against Andy. More importantly, as it turns out, Lionel sets Andy up by encouraging another student, Melissa, to ask Andy to mentor her in a reading course on intelligent-design creationism. Andy resists but finally gives in, with predictably dire consequences.

I occasionally get books for review unsolicited, and many of them are not worth noticing. However, Kostas Kampourakis' Understanding Evolution is a wonderful resource for students of all kinds, including biology students.


Science secrets: book review


The subtitle of this book by historian Alberto Martinez is, “The truth about Darwin’s finches, Einstein’s wife, and other myths,” and if you read it you will learn that

Robert Asher is a Cambridge mammal paleontologist, zoologist, phylogeneticist, author of Evolution and Belief, and generally really smart guy. He has just published a commentary at HuffPo on one aspect of Stephen Meyer’s arguments, namely, Meyer’s argument about “uniformitarianism.”

de_Queiroz_2014_Monkeys_Voyage.pngNote: this is an off-the-cuff review that I wrote while experiencing jet-lag induced insomnia (I am in Canberra, Australia, to give a workshop on BioGeoBEARS at the 2014 meeting of the International Biogeography Society at Australia National University). I have a more formal review in preparation for the Reports of the National Center for Science Education.

Review of: de Queiroz, Alan (2014). The Monkey’s Voyage: How Improbable Journeys Shaped the History of Life. Basic Books: New York, pp. 1-348. - Amazon Link

Today, a book is coming out that is destined to become a classic of science writing. Normally, popular science books popularize well-established science. The research being popularized may be decades or centuries old. Certainly popularization of such material is important, but I found that for me, the appeal of such works dropped off as I matured as a scientist. There are only so many times you can read about Darwin and the Beagle, or Laplace and the hypothesis he had no need of, or the sequence from Mendel to Watson and Crick, before you feel like you’ve heard it all before and it ceases to become interesting.

Alan de Queiroz is doing something different. He is popularizing an active scientific controversy in biogeography. Biogeography is the science of where species live and how they got there. The biogeographical controversy is termed “dispersal versus vicariance,” and it runs long and deep. Understanding what the controversy is about, and why anyone would care, takes a little bit of background.

This is a splendid book, though frankly it does not entirely live up to its subtitle, “The scientific method in action.” What I learned most from it is that there is no scientific method, at least as it applies to startling new discoveries, and that those new discoveries are often made by people who are utterly single-minded in their dedication to their subject.

Life’s Ratchet: book review


This is a biology book written by a physicist who performs research in cellular biology. I picked it up and started reading it, but I got stuck somewhere in the chapter on thermodynamics. So I contacted Mike Elzinga, a frequent commenter on PT, and asked him to explain something. In the process, I somehow conned him into writing a review of the book for PT. I will add only that the figures in the book are less than desirable on a Kindle (and some are fairly crude hand sketches), and I indeed intend to read Chapter 7 again when I get a chance.

Here, with appreciation, the book review.

Prothero reviews Meyer’s Hopeless Monster


Donald Prothero, paleontologist and author of Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why It Matters, has reviewed Meyer’s “Darwin’s Doubt” monstrosity on Amazon. Money quote:

In short, Meyer has shown that his first disastrous book was not a fluke: he is capable of going into any field in which he has no training or research experience and botching it just as badly as he did molecular biology. As I’ve written before, if you are a complete amateur and don’t understand a subject, don’t demonstrate the Dunning-Kruger effect by writing a book about it and proving your ignorance to everyone else!

Via Larry Moran at Sandwalk.

Brilliant blunders


Mario Livio definitely does not pick on someone smaller than he. Indeed, when he decided to write about what he considers scientific blunders, he went after Darwin, Kelvin, Pauling, Hoyle, and Einstein.

The full title of his latest book is Brilliant Blunders: From Darwin to Einstein – Colossal Mistakes by Great Scientists That Changed Our Understanding of Life and the Universe, which is more of an abstract than a title. It would be incorrect to claim that Livio has not laid a glove on any of his subjects, but neither, it seems to me, are all of the errors “colossal.” Still, the book was well worth reading and contains excellent introductory material for those who are not experts in the subjects and even for those who are. The organization of the book is also interesting in that every chapter relates in some way to evolution, whether of life or the earth or the universe, and the transitions from scientist to scientist are relatively seamless.

Exploring Evolution


My first reaction when I received this splendid book was, “Wow! Great pictures!” Not to mention high-quality printing, paper, and layout. At 22 x 28 cm, the book is not exactly a coffee-table book, but neither does it feel like a textbook. And no wonder: It is published by a publisher, Vivays Publishing, which apparently specializes in art, architecture, and interior design, with, now, several science titles.

You could probably get by by looking at the pictures, which range from DNA to diatoms to Darwin to Darrow to dinosaurs, and reading the occasional caption. That would be a mistake, though; the text is clear and concise and, as the title promises, explores evolution.

Afarensis reviews “Science and Human Origins”


Afarensis, a blogger on (mostly) paleontology, has started a series of posts reviewing the Disco ‘Tute’s “Science and Human Origins.” Recall that Paul McBride also did a chapter by chapter review that hammered the book a few months ago.

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Jason Rosenhouse moved from the east coast to Kansas for a postdoc. He had studied a bit about creationism while a graduate student at Dartmouth, so it would be an exaggeration to say that he was surprised to learn that not everyone in Kansas was a liberal Democrat (even by today’s standard of liberalism). Nevertheless, for reasons that are not made completely clear, he humored his inner anthropologist and attended a handful of creationist conferences over a period of several years. The result is the splendid book Among the Creationists: Dispatches from the Anti-Evolutionist Front Line, which both shows creationists as regular people, just like scientists, and also takes them seriously, without condescension or sarcasm.

Not that Rosenhouse cuts them any slack. He gets up to the microphone and asks pointed questions, and he is completely open about who he is and what he believes. He mingles with the conference attendees and is impressed by how very pleasant they are; he is pleasant in return, except for one apparently unfortunate interaction with Ken Ham. Nevertheless, however pleasant the creationists may be, Rosenhouse makes clear that he and his interlocutors are always talking past each other, and his critiques have virtually no effect - except occasionally, when he sees a young student listening intently and thinks he may have planted some seeds of doubt.

“Science and Human Origins” (Amazon; Barnes&Noble) is a slim book recently published by the Disco ‘Tute’s house press. It’s by Ann Gauger and Douglas Axe, members of the Disco Tute’s Biologic Institute, along with Casey Luskin. The book is blurbed thusly:

In this provocative book, three scientists challenge the claim that undirected natural selection is capable of building a human being, critically assess fossil and genetic evidence that human beings share a common ancestor with apes, and debunk recent claims that the human race could not have started from an original couple.

In other words, down with common descent, and while we’re at it, a literal Adam and Eve could have been the ancestors of the whole human species.

And by three scientists? Ah, yes, I momentarily forgot that Casey Luskin got a Master’s in Earth Science before he went off to law school and then got a job with the Disco ‘Tute, where he is now listed as “Research Coordinator” (and is there called an attorney rather than a scientist). Once again, one detects a touch of inflationary credentialism.

Fortunately for me, I’m spared the chore of reading and critiquing the book. Paul McBride, a Ph.D. candidate in vertebrate macroecology/evolution in New Zealand who writes Still Monkeys, bit the bullet and did a chapter by chapter (all five chapters) review of the book. The book doesn’t come out looking good (is anyone surprised?). I’m going to shamelessly piggyback on McBride’s review. I’ll link to his individual chapter reviews, adding some commentary, below the fold.

If you want to publish a book with a vanity press and no editorial assistance, you had better know what you are doing. Charles M. Woolf, an emeritus professor of zoology at Arizona State University, unfortunately does not know what he is doing. His book, Darwin, Darwinism, and Uncertainty, is a series of three more or less unrelated essays. The first is a biography of Darwin and attempts to show that Darwin was a believing member of the Church of England until the ascent of Darwin to agnosticism later in his life; hence, “Darwinism” and theism are not necessarily incompatible. The second and least important essay is called “Theories for the creation of the universe,” but it concerns mostly the origin of complex, self-replicating molecules, and I found much of it very difficult to understand.

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