A voice for the non-religious in Swindon

“Human decency is not derived from religion. It precedes it.” ― Christopher Hitchens

“What evidence?”

Swindon Humanists had a stall at the Old Town Festival again this year and once again it was a really enjoyable day. Last year’s festival was pretty much the first event we as a group took part in, so to return this year to represent humanism and non-religion for the town was great. Once again we were somewhat outnumbered by the many religious stalls, but that gave us (and them) the chance to have some great conversations about our beliefs.

One very nice man who came to our stall to chat was from the local Christian Evangelical church and we discussed quite a few topics including morality, mortality, cosmology and also evolution. He was a creationist and didn’t believe in evolution and I began to explain that I did, although it wasn’t really about belief, it was more an acceptance of the scientific consensus and the overwhelming amount of evidence for evolution. But then he asked a very straightforward question that took me back somewhat:

“What evidence?”

A perfectly obvious and valid question of course and I think it was more the feeling of ‘blimey, where do I start?’ that made me pause for a moment before saying something about going to any natural history museum or read any number of excellent books on the subject I could recommend him then and there. But he was also claiming something more specific; that evolution – or rather speciation – had not been observed in a laboratory. My colleagues and I proceeded to explain that that isn’t the case, and why the evidence for evolution is undeniable. This post is merely to point anyone who has similar views, or similar questions, in the right direction to find out what that evidence actually is.

The first thing to note is that the evidence for evolution comes from a wide variety of sources and indeed several different branches of science altogether. Even if it were true that speciation hadn’t been observed in a lab (it’s not), that wouldn’t affect the mountain of evidence from other areas. My first thought when I decided to write this post was that I’d describe the many lines of evidence for evolution and find references and links to the many sources online where they could be explored further. But then I thought – why do I need to? This is not a subject that is buried in technical, academic or hard to locate websites. If anyone genuinely wants to learn about the evidence, the best way to start is to simply just google for it, or go to Wikipedia. So, here are some Wikipedia links from which to start finding out about evolution, concepts within it and the evidence for it:

Evolution

Introduction to Evolution (non-technical)

Evidence of common descent

Natural selection

Speciation

Transitional fossils

Evolution as fact and theory

Creation-evolution controversy

That is just a small selection of some of the pages that Wikipedia has on evolution, it really is an extensive resource that has a vast number of references and links to further reading. I would also personally recommend a handful of books that would also help greatly anyone wanting to understand evolution:

On the Origin of Species (Oxford World’s Classics)

The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution

Why Evolution is True

Evolution: The Triumph of an Idea

Evolution in Action: Natural History through Spectacular Skeletons

The Blind Watchmaker

The Ancestor’s Tale: A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Life

Again, there are many many more books that could go on that list.

There are a couple of other things worth pointing out. Our friendly Evangelical Christian told us he knew someone personally with a PhD, a highly respected scientist (I forget the precise details I’m afraid) and that this person was a creationist and rejected evolution – as if that were a knock-down argument for his case. Firstly, remarkably intelligent people can believe things that are flat out wrong. This should really be entirely obvious, and it’s not hard to find examples. Not even a Nobel prize shields you from believing some completely ridiculous things, as it turns out. Secondly, a single anecdotal example like that isn’t evidence for anything, for or against the argument. I’ll simply quote here a line from the Wikipedia page on the creation-evolution debate that I posted earlier:

Within the scientific community and in academia, evolution is an undisputed fact and the level of support for it is essentially universal. Support for Abrahamic religions’ accounts or other creationist alternatives is very low among scientists, and virtually nonexistent among scientists in the relevant fields.

That being the case, to believe that virtually every scientist of note on the planet with relevant expertise is wrong, and that every equivalent scientist for the last 150 years since Darwin published On the Origin of Species has also been wrong (especially considering that if they’d be able to prove Darwin wrong, it would also certainly result in a Nobel prize and their name in the history books) is just not in the realms of possibility. Another alternative, that evolution is one enormous conspiracy perpetrated on the human race (for who knows what ends) puts anyone who thinks that into the same conspiracy theory mindset of those who believe the Apollo moon landings were faked, or that the Earth is in fact a flat disk and not an oblate spheroid. I’m not sure which of those a Christian Evangelical would want to go with, but the point is that from a scientific point of view (and our questioner was looking for scientific evidence) there is no controversy – evolution is a fact and the Modern Evolutionary Synthesis (the current Theory of Evolution) is our current best explanation of how it occurs.

Which brings me to my final point. Just last month, the Government banned all existing and future Academies and Free Schools from teaching creationism as science. To quote the British Humanist Association:

In other words, in the Government’s view, if an Academy or Free School teaches creationism as scientifically valid then it is breaking the requirement to provide a broad and balanced curriculum. As every Academy and Free School has this requirement in its funding agreement, the implication of this interpretation is that no Academy and Free School, existing or future, can teach pseudoscience.

It’s in this context of course where the debate changes from a few people at a local fair having a fun debate about what they believe about stuff, to the importance of providing our children with a high quality education. Creationism is not science, it’s pseudoscience (it’s religion of course, in essence) – which is why it has rightly been removed from the science class. I want children to also ask “What evidence?” when learning about evolution, and it’s science that provides answers, not religion.

*image from http://www.evolvefish.com

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8 comments on ““What evidence?”

  1. paul
    July 1, 2014

    Dear Neil, thanks for your blog, and the conversation we had. If you please bear with me, timewise and workwise, I will respond as soon as I am able. Meanwhile, can I ask if you have read Sir Antony Flew’s book “There Is A God – How The World’s Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind”? I would be willing to buy and send you a copy if you would read it? Being such a prominent humanist and world-respected philosopher, he surely deserves reading? Thanks.

    • Neil Davies
      July 1, 2014

      Hi Paul, it’d be great to hear your thoughts, thank you. As for the book offer, that’s very kind of you but I’m aware of the book and have grave concerns about it to be honest. I recognised the name when you mentioned it at the weekend and recalled reading a few reviews of the book when it came out some years ago. The concerns are simply that the book was to all intents and purposes ghost-written by a Christian apologist and had no input from Flew, as this articles describes:

      http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism/2007/11/the-exploitation-of-antony-flew/

      I quote:

      “Mark Oppenheimer of the Times went to Reading to interview Flew. Oppenheimer found that he was polite and agreeable, but suffering from serious memory gaps. Flew could not define terms like “abiogenesis” and was unfamiliar with the arguments advanced in the book. He freely admitted, and Varghese confirmed, that Varghese wrote all the original content of the book. Flew was simply persuaded to sign his name to it after it had been written for him.”

      So while I’m very happy to discuss creationism and evolution with you I don’t think this particular book is one I’d feel comfortable devoting any time to. There must be others that are less problematic? Would you like to read any of the books I linked to in my post? Only a few of them are by Richard Dawkins 😉

  2. Lee
    July 1, 2014

    I would also add this great website for information on evolution and the “debate” on creationism

    http://www.talkorigins.org

    • Neil Davies
      July 1, 2014

      Yes, a really excellent resource that answers just about every creationist argument in detail. Thanks!

  3. paul
    July 1, 2014

    Dear Neil, I am sorry but you are in point of fact, wrong on this point. in a letter dated 4th June 2008, answering the scurrilous charges that the book was ghost-written, Professor Flew himself wrote:
    “I have rebutted these criticisms in the following statement: “My name is on the book and it represents exactly my opinions. I would not have a book issued in my name that I do not 100 per cent agree with. I needed someone to do the actual writing because I’m 84 and that was Roy Varghese’s role. The idea that someone manipulated me because I’m old is exactly wrong. I may be old but it is hard to manipulate me. That is my book and it represents my thinking.”
    Have you read Professor Flew’s devastating critique of Richard Dawkins’ book “The God Delusion”? In it he highlights his belief in a Divine Intelligence. Are you going to now say that this also was ghost-written?
    Surely you would be freethinking enough to read Professor Flew’s book? Bit if not, I am still happy to respond on the creation-evolution issue?
    Warm greetings.

    • Neil Davies
      July 1, 2014

      Well I certainly hope that’s true, as I said I had concerns, I wasn’t making the claim. I’m sure you’d agree it would be quite appalling to have used Flew in such a way if that were the case. I hadn’t read Flew’s review of The God Delusion, so I have just looked it up and done so… it’s very short and strange, and makes the claim that Einstein believed in a ‘Divine Intelligence’. Considering that’s demonstrably false, it’s hard to really take much else of it seriously, but that’s not really saying much as there’s very little in the way of criticism of the arguments in Dawkins’ book anyway – I’d say calling it devastating is something of an overstatement. So again, I would probably pass on reading Flew’s book, as I would think there must be other books that have less baggage associated with them?

      I am quite interested in why his book is of such importance to you, as as far as I can see Flew’s book promotes deism, rather than theism or even the biblical literalism that you seem to hold to. Is it simply because he was apparently a famous atheist who converted (I’d never heard of him before that btw), and if not, how do you go from his deism to your very specific form of theism?

      But I’m happy to stick to evolution for the time being if you’d prefer.

  4. paul
    July 2, 2014

    Thanks Neil. I refer to Professor Flew’s book because of his prominence academically as a humanist and former atheist. Can I still encourage you to be open-minded enough to read his book? It is fascinating, although some of the arguments quite complex.
    I am also a little surprised by your recourse to Wikipedia (!) and popular science books. Can I suggest some more academically rigorous books you could consider. I’ve included a suggested reading list below. These books would help to address your questions and they offer a positive case for a creationist understanding of the evidence.
    In addition, rather than emailing you separately following email questions raised at the Old Town Festival, can I just respond quickly now on the two specific questions posed:
    1) This paper is an interesting contribution on how species might have diversified rapidly after the flood: http://grisda.org/origins/54005.pdf
    2) The following paper discusses some challenges to conventional geochronology: http://grisda.org/origins/13064.pdf Radioisotope dating (the main source of dates for rocks and minerals on the earth) has been tackled by the creationist RATE group, with intriguing results. Both RATE books are available free of charge online:
    Volume I: http://www.icr.org/i/pdf/research/rate-all.pdf
    Volume II: http://www.icr.org/rate2/

    The New Creationism by Paul Garner (Evangelical Press, 2009, 300 pp).

    Faith, Form, and Time by Kurt Wise (Broadman and Holman, 2002, 287 pp).

    Explore Evolution by Stephen Meyer, Paul Nelson, Jonathan Moneymaker, Scott Minnich and Ralph Seelke (Hill House, UK Ed., 2009, 159 pp).

    Faith, Reason and Earth History by Leonard Brand (Andrews University Press, Second Ed., 2009, 508 pp).

    Beginnings by Leonard Brand and David James (Pacific Press, 2006, 175 pp).

    Earth’s Catastrophic Past (2 vols.) by Andrew Snelling (Institute for Creation Research, 2009, 1102 pp).

    Understanding the Pattern of Life by Todd Wood and Megan Murray (Broadman and Holman, 2003, 231 pp).

    Time and work commitments do not permit me to spend more time on this, and I do not have the least bit of expertise in this area. Although my first degree was a scientific discipline, I am really a theologian. But I hope the above prove helpful and interesting. Thank you for taking the time to talk. Some time ago, the Swindon Humanist Society kindly popped an invite through our church door inviting us to hear a speaker from Cheltenham for a debate with the speaker I think – but it was for the following week, which for us was not possible – but something like this in the future would be good. But thanks for the conversation Neil.
    Kindest regards.

    • Neil Davies
      July 2, 2014

      Wikipedia is a perfectly sound place to start learning about evolution, which, if indeed you don’t have any particular knowledge of, I would still recommend you start with. A basic understanding of the main concepts are all you need to understand why most creationist claims are false. For example, the question you asked us at the stall – “where is the intermediate between a cat and a dog?” shows a fairly basic misunderstanding of what evolution is and how it works. So that’s why I suggested to begin at the beginning, as it were – if you’re interested in the actual scientific evidence, as you claimed. And as I said, it’s a place to start – the links and references can take you to academic research if you wish, but jumping straight to that level of writing would be the wrong way to go I would suggest.

      The same applies for the books – they are all excellent places to start. Considering you’re also recommending me to read a non-academic book I don’t see what the issue is. Some of the books I’ve recommended are written by evolutionary biologists and wouldn’t you say they’d be best placed to educate people wanting to learn? I’d be happy to read Flew’s book (I skimmed what I could on the Amazon preview already) if you’d be willing to read one of the books I recommended – Evolution by Carl Zimmer would probably be best (I won’t force you to read vocal atheists like Dawkins or Coyne). Deal?

      Thanks for the links to articles – a quick look shows me they are full of jargon and terms I’m not remotely familiar with, so I doubt I’ll get much out of them. Can I ask – have you read and do you understand them?

      Thanks again 🙂

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This entry was posted on July 1, 2014 by in Atheism, Humanism, Religion, Swindon.

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