Recently in Science and Faith Category

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.

Science is not about certainty


That is the title of an interesting article in The New Republic by the theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli. I read it mostly because it had been quote-mined by Elizabeth Mitchell here. Professor Rovelli’s article was perhaps a bit windy, and I could take issue with some of his discussion, but it was not all that hard to understand. One of his main points is that science has been extremely successful and any new theory will have to reduce to existing theory in the appropriate limit:

By David MacMillan.

3. You don’t evolve, your species does.

Creationists often conceptualize evolution as something which is purely vertical: successive changes from parent to child to grandchild to great-grandchild accumulating over time. They can hardly be faulted for this misconception, because this view seems to be shared by the general public and even reinforced by the sometimes-imprecise explanations and depictions of evolution by museums and science educators.

Evolutionary adaptation, however, does not happen in a straight line from parent to child. Rather, adaptation takes place throughout a population as different genetic sequences spread outward from parents to all their offspring and are recombined and reshuffled in many different individuals each successive generation. Evolution is wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey stuff. It is the combination of changing genetic material across an entire population that makes major evolutionary adaptation possible; without this constant mixing and recombination from the entire population, evolution would grind almost to a halt. Evolution is a phenomenon that functions not at the level of the individual, nor at the level of individual lineages, but across the entire population within the species (Figure 1).


Figure 1. This hypothetical example depicts evolutionary change as an emergent property of the entire population. Both the “ABC” combinations (in shades of blue) and the “XYZ” combinations (in shades of red) offer a survival advantage and are passed on, while combinations of the two (shown in shades of purple) are detrimental and are removed from the population. No specific mutation order is required; as long as the selection pressure remains steady, the mutations accumulate together (essentially “finding” each other) and two separate genotypes emerge.

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.


Paabo_2014_Neanderthal_Man_cover.jpgPeople have been sending me this, so I might as well blog it. In February 2014, Svante P��bo, who led the Neanderthal genome project, published a popular book on the sequencing of the Neanderthal genome, and reactions to it.

I haven’t yet read the book, although I’m sure it’s great, based on talks I have seen by P��bo. However, there is one passage that PT readers may find particularly interesting:

Svante P��bo (2014). Neanderthal Man: In Search of Lost Genomes. Basic Books; First Edition (February 11, 2014), 288 pages[…]e/B00GJ9XR7O

p. 221:

There were many others who were interested in the Neanderthal genome – perhaps most surprisingly, some fundamentalist Christians in the United States. A few months after our paper appeared, I met Nicholas J. Matzke, a doctoral candidate at the Center for Theoretical Evolutionary Genomics at UC Berkeley. Unbeknownst to me and the other authors, our paper had apparently caused quite a flurry of discussion in the creationist community. Nick explained to me that creationists come in two varieties. First, there are “young-earth creationists,” who believe that the earth, the heavens, and all life were created by direct acts of God sometime between 5,700 and 10,000 years ago. They tend to consider Neanderthals as “fully human,” sometimes saying they were another, now extinct “race” that was scattered after the fall of the Tower of Babel. As a consequence, young-earth creationists had no problem with our finding that Neanderthals and modern humans had mixed. Then there are “old-earth creationists,” who accept that the earth is old but reject evolution by natural, nondivine means. One major old-earth ministry is “Reasons to Believe,” headed by a Hugh Ross. He believes that modern humans were specially created around 50,000 years ago and that Neanderthals weren’t humans, but animals. Ross and other old-earth creationists didn’t like the finding that Neanderthals and modern humans had mixed. Nick sent me a transcript from a radio show in which he [meaning Hugh Ross] commented on our work, saying interbreeding was predictable “because the story of Genesis is early humanity getting into exceptionally wicked behavior practices,” and that God may have had to “forcibly scatter humanity over the face of the Earth” to stop this kind of interbreeding, which he compared to “animal bestiality.”

Clearly our paper was reaching a broader audience than we had ever imagined.

Nye-Ham debate an hour away


And you may watch it here on NBC or here on WCPO, Cincinnati.

Piers Morgan will interview the debaters on CNN at 9:45 EST, and MSNBC will interview Bill Nye during the 10:00 hour, EST. C-Span will rebroadcast the event Wednesday, February 19 at 8 p.m. EST, according to WCPO.

If you cannot wait till the end of the debate, you may leave comments below at any time. I suggest that we allow comments from (many of) our creationist trolls, as long as they are coherent. I will not allow comments that are merely insulting.

Dan Phelps, president of the Kentucky Paleontological Society, will participate in an “extended interview” with Terry Mortenson of Answers in Genesis. The participants will discuss the question, “Is teaching creationism harmful to children, society?” at 11:00 a.m., Eastern Standard Time, Thursday, January 30, on WEKU of Richmond, Kentucky. It looks like you can get it streaming. I will refrain from noting that modern journalism thinks there are two sides to every question, even when there are not.

Does any reader know of any other, similar warm-ups or “extended interviews”?

By David MacMillan. The author has a B.S. in physics from the University of North Alabama and once wrote a very positive review of the Creation Museum.

It’s rare to see a prominent scientist or educator agree to a public debate with someone from the creation science movement. Giving equal time to both sides might be a foundational principle of American dialogue, but it paints the issue as more of a controversy than it actually is. That’s why it surprised a lot of people when Bill Nye, science educator and TV personality, agreed to debate the president of Cincinnati’s Creation Museum, Ken Ham.

Evolution Weekend


The Clergy Letter Project has announced the ninth annual Evolution Weekend, February 7-9, 2014. Their theme this year is Different Ways of Knowing/Asking Different Questions, and they say,

Evolution Weekend is an opportunity for serious discussion and reflection on the relationship between religion and science. An ongoing goal has been to elevate the quality of the discussion on this critical topic, and to show that religion and science are not adversaries. Rather, they look at the natural world from quite different perspectives and ask, and answer, different questions.

They go on to note that many religious people recognize evolution as “sound science” and furthermore that “mischaracteriz[ing] evolution for partisan gain” has real (and I would add, uniformly negative) “consequences for society.” Read their statement for yourself, and by all means bug your clergyperson to address evolution from the pulpit or to develop some special program for that weekend – even if you have to prepare that program yourself! I certainly intend to bug my rabbi, who last year very graciously helped me put together a program on the trolley problem, and see what we can do this year.

Yesterday, I received a letter and a booklet from an organization called Day Star Research. The booklet was written by the president of Day Star, Fred Heeren, who writes, among other things,

Day Star Research is committed to

* Promoting healthy dialogue between the religious and non-religious.

* Fighting irrational extremism with rationality.…

* Encouraging Christians to reverse their reputation for anti-intellectualism, insensitivity, and judgmentalism.…

How the World Began


Last night, I saw a splendid production of “How the World Began” produced by the Boulder Ensemble Theater Company, also known as Betsy. If you hurry, you can catch the last performance of Catherine Trieschmann’s fine play this afternoon at 4 p.m. According to the director, Betsy’s production is only the fourth, after New York and two other cities.

Very briefly, the play involves a young, idealistic, single, pregnant biology graduate who comes from New York to teach biology in a rural Kansas town, at least in part because it has recently been destroyed by a tornado. Early on, she obliquely refers to creationism as gobbledygook and is challenged after school by a very troubled student. Unfortunately, she digs in her heels and refuses to apologize, with consequences both predictable and unpredictable.

Webcast: The Evolution of Religion


Another in an annual series of discussions of science and religion at Ohio State is scheduled for October 5. The announcement:

*The Evolution of Religion*
Wednesday, October 5, 7-9pm
[Enable javascript to see this email address.] Studios, 333 West Broad Street, Columbus, Ohio 43215

Where do our religious beliefs come from? Have religious beliefs served an evolutionary purpose? Join us in the [Enable javascript to see this email address.] Studios for a spirited panel discussion on the intersection of science and religion, followed by a question-and-answer session. Scheduled speakers include:

- Moderator Neal Conan, host of NPR’s *Talk of the Nation *
- Nicolas Wade, New York Times science writer and author of *Before the Dawn* and *The Faith Instinct*
- Lionel Tiger, Charles Darwin Professor of Anthropology, Emeritus at Rutgers University, and author of *God’s Brain*

The event is free but reservations are required. To register, visit this site or call 614.228.2674 for details. Supported by a grant from the John Templeton Foundation.

The series is sponsored by public TV station WOSU, by the Center for Science and Industry in Columbus, and by the Department of Entomology at the Ohio State University. I wrote about one such on the Thumb four years ago. They have had a distinctly “accommodationist” flavor, and given the Templeton Foundation’s funding of the series (via Susan Fisher of the Department of Entomology at Ohio State), I suspect this one will carry on that theme. I know little of Tiger’s or Wade’s views on that, so I may be wrong. The entire series of webcasts is archived at this site.

Tom Baillieul, a member of Ohio Citizens for Science, has a background essay on the evolution of religion available here (PDF).

(I can’t resist noting that the Department of Entomology is also home to one of the creationist “scientists,” Glen Needham, who played a significant role in the Bryan Leonard affair at Ohio State.)

Looks like the cartoonist Wiley Miller has started a series of strips on teaching the “controversy.” He’s got the age of the dinosaurs wrong, and carbon dating does not work that far back anyway, but, hell, the strip is called Non Sequitur. The money quote so far is, “Um, just as an F.Y.I., saying ‘facts’ would be a lot less offensive if you used air-quotes.”

Well, no, not really, but a recent program on National Public Radio in the U. S. claimed that “Evangelicals Question the Existence of Adam and Eve.” More specifically, the program noted that Dennis Venema of Trinity Western University and a few other evangelical scholars argue, correctly, that evolutionary theory precludes the possibility that all of humanity descended from a single couple. Let us hope that they are the thin edge of the wedge.

Unfortunately, the bottom line is more likely a statement by Albert Mohler, the president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary: “Without Adam, the work of Christ makes no sense whatsoever in Paul’s description of the Gospel .…” I have no idea whether this claim is true, but it is certainly not evidence for the existence of Adam. Venema and the others are on the right track when they note that the Bible consists of allegory and poetry, as well as history, and need not be taken literally. Mohler, by contrast, needs to learn the meaning of the phrase begging the question.

Did God create the universe?


According to an advance review of a program tonight on the Discovery Channel, Stephen Hawking (unsurprisingly) says no. In the U. S., the program is on the tube at 8:00 Eastern time.

As was reported on PT and elsewhere, Chris Rodda recently decided to make a pdf of her book Liars for Jesus available for download free. Just today, the National Academies Press announced that it would make available pdf’s of nearly all its books, also free for download. NAP is the publisher of the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering, the Institute of Medicine, and the National Research Council.

Not to be outdone, I have decided to make a pdf of my book No Sense of Obligation: Science and Religion in an Impersonal Universe available for free download here.

The New Scientist reported yesterday that U. S. Muslim clergy have signed an Imam Letter to the effect that evolution is compatible with their Muslim beliefs. I cannot find any information yet as to the number of signatories, but they will join approximately 13,000 Christian clerics, 500 rabbis, and 250 Unitarian-Universalist clerics when they affirm

that the timeless truths of the Qur’an may comfortably coexist with the discoveries of modern science. As Imams we urge public school boards to affirm their commitment to the teaching of the science of evolution. We ask that science remain science and that religion remain religion, two very different, but complementary, forms of truth

Stuck in moderation at Coyne’s place


Apropos of Matt’s post just below, in a post titled “NCSE becomes BioLogos” Jerry Coyne has thrown a hissy fit over NCSE noting the upcoming Webcast on ‘Evolving Christianity’ featuring a number of theists of varying stripes speaking on how they accommodate their theism and science in general and evolution in particular.

I commented on Coyne’s site more than five hours ago but my comment is still labeled (after hard refreshes) as “Awaiting moderation” while several comments posted later than mine have appeared. So I’ll reproduce my comment below the fold, warts and all.

Evolutionary Christianity


I just got an announcement to the effect that “The Clergy Letter Project has just become a co-sponsor of a free on-line series hosted by Michael Dowd and entitled ‘The Advent of Evolutionary Christianity: Conversations at the Leading Edge of Faith.’ This exciting series begins this Saturday, 4 December.” As a Nice Jewish Boy, not to mention a nonbeliever, I doubt I will participate, but I noticed several panelists of whom I think highly – not least John Shelby Spong, John Haught, and Ian Barbour. Additionally, biologist Ken Miller is on the panel, as are physicists Charles Townes and my former colleague at NIST, Bill Phillips, and astronomer Owen Gingerich. In case any of our readers are interested, I will post the gist of the announcement, which I got from Michael Zimmerman, below the fold.

America’s Four Gods


The subtitle of this book, by Baylor professors Paul Froese and Christopher Bader, is “What we say about God—& what that says about us.” The thesis of the book is, in essence, that classifying people according to their religious denomination (or lack thereof) tells you little about, for example, their politics or their views on science. Instead, Froese and Bader classify people according to the kind of God they believe in: authoritative, benevolent, critical, and distant (not to mention none).

Froese and Bader pose 2 questions, “To what extent does God interact with the world? To what extent does God judge the world?” As a result of interviews and surveys, they conclude that

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