As Darwin Year ends, some seek to go “beyond Darwin”


Pigeon bones display at Darwin's former home, 12 Feb 2009/Tal Cohen

As this Darwin Year 2009 draws to a close, I have to say a lot of the public debate it prompted came down to the sterile old clash between evolution and creationism.  The issue of religion always hung in the air, with the loudest arguments coming from the creationist side defending it or the neo-atheists like the Darwinian biologist Richard Dawkins denouncing it. In the end, the squabbling seemed to be more about ideology than science and told us little we didn’t already know. staune

Jean Staune, 25 Nov 2009/Tom Heneghan

So I was intrigued by a conference held at UNESCO here in Paris recently about scientists who believe in evolution but want to go “beyond Darwin.” Organised by French philosopher of science Jean Staune, its speakers argued that Darwin could not explain underlying order and patterns found in nature.  “We have to differentiate between evolution and Darwinism,” said Jean Staune, author of the new book “Au-dela de Darwin” (Beyond Darwin). “Of course there is adaptation. But like physics and chemistry, biology is also subject to its own laws.”

Michael Denton, a geneticist with New Zealand’s University of Otago, said Darwinian “functionalists” believed life forms simply adapted to the outside world while his “structuralist” view also saw an internal logic driving this evolution down certain paths.  His view, which he called “extraordinarily foreign to modern biology,” explained why many animals developed “camera eyes” like human ones and why proteins, one of the building blocks of life, fold into structures unchanged for three billion years.

The speakers here — all academics from fields such as genetics, neurobiology, psychology and paleontology — are of course neither the first nor the only scientists to argue that life must have evolved by more than just natural selection. Several mentioned the British paleontologist Simon Conway Morris, who argues that the evolutionary  convergence of life forms “throws severe doubt on a number of fashionable presuppositions in evolution.” But it was interesting to see how many different arguments the scientists brought to supplement the basic evolution thesis they supported. denton

Michael Denton, 25 Nov 2009/Tom Heneghan

Denton is an interesting case because he is a scientist with publications in peer-reviewed journals who was originally close to the intelligent design movement.  His 1985 book “Evolution: A Theory in Crisis” helped launch the “ID” movement and he was linked to the Discovery Institute, a leading advocate of the controversial idea. But he later changed his mind and argued in the 1998 book “Nature’s Destiny: How the Law of Biology Reveal Purpose in the Universe” argued that evolution occurred but was channeled down certain paths by inherent structures in nature.

Facts and false equivalence – reporting on evolution disputes

greatestshow_jacketBritish biologist Richard Dawkins, one of the leading voices of the “neo-atheist” movement, has taken the latest book-sized shot at the “intelligent design” movement. You can read my interview with Dawkins’ here about his new book: “The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution.”

For a scientist of Dawkins’ caliber, intelligent design is a barn-door sized target. In a nutshell, it maintains that life is so complex that it must be the work of a creator. Its boosters claim their view is based in science and not influenced by religion, but it is widely seen as a thinly-veiled attempt to give a scientific gloss to creationism. That claim to science is the key here — most religions believe that God created the world, of course, but they state this as an article of faith and not a scientific fact.

On this blog, we often report on issues related to science and religion. We have to remain agnostic on the biggest question of all — does God exist? — and take fundamental dogmas as the starting point for each faith. This sometimes strikes readers as strange or biased. Some think it already shows a prejudice against belief. But just imagine what would happen if we took sides on teachings such as the resurrection of Jesus or the divine origin of the Koran. We would not be practicing journalism anymore, but some kind of theological analysis or deconstruction, and our readers would not be getting the information they want about religion news around the world.

Author of new Galileo book says old trial has current relevance

earthmovessThe current struggles between religion and science in areas such as evolution and “intelligent design” are thrown into sharp relief in a new book on the great Italian astronomer Galileo and his trial by the Roman Inquisition.

Author Dan Hofstadter says the Galileo affair was “the great religion-science clash of 1633 that in some form has persisted into our time.”

Indirectly verifying Hofstadter’s thesis, a Vatican official — Monsignor Sergio Pagano, head of the Vatican’s secret archives — said earlier this month that the Roman Catholic Church should not fear scientific progress and possibly repeat the mistake it made when it condemned Galileo.

Evolution book takes aim at “Intelligent Design”

Among the new crop of books with themes that would resonate with readers of this blog, one that caught my eye is Jerry A. Coyne’s recently published “Why Evolution is True”. I rushed out, bought it and read it.


The title says it all and is clearly aimed at an American audience. America’s reluctance to embrace evolution — which is the foundation of modern biology and stems from Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection — sets it apart from almost all other countries in the developed world. Polls generally show that only around 40 percent of Americans believe evolution is true while in most European countries the figure is closer to 80 percent.

A Harris poll in 2007 for example found that only 42 percent of Americans accepted evolution while 62 percent believed in the devil.

Texas reaches evolution compromise: who won, who lost?

The State Board of Education in Texas voted on Friday to remove a long-time science curriculum rule that required “strengths and weaknesses” of scientific theories be covered in the classroom.

It also struck down two proposed sections that would have required students in high school biology classes to study the “sufficiency or insufficiency” of common ancestry and natural selection of species.

But it settled on a compromise that will require teachers to discuss “all sides” of scientific theories with their students. This may allow both sides to claim a victory of sorts.

Anti-Darwin speaker gagged at Vatican evolution conference

Pontifical Gregorian University in RomeThe start of a high-powered Vatican-sponsored acadmeic conference on evolution was anything but fossilized.The third STOQ International Conference, called Biological Evolution, Facts and Theories, began on Tuesday at the Pontifical Gregorian University (picture right) under the patronage of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Culture.The conference, which has been organised together with the University of Notre Dame to mark the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin, had barely gotten underway when charges of censorship and undemocratic and unacademic behaviour began flying.At the end of the first session Oktar Babuna, a Turkish doctor and collaborator of prominent Turkish anti-Darwin campaigner Harun Yahya,asked for the floor to put forward a question. Babuna, a proponent of the Islamic creationist campaign against evolution, spoke about his view that there were insufficient transitional forms from species to species to support the theory of evolution.After he began speaking two professors on the dias, Francisco J. Ayala of the University of California at Irvine and Douglas Futuyma of the State University of New York were visibly irritated. Someone in the hall can be heard saying “turn the microphone off” and seconds later two organisers approached Babuna. One of them abruptly took the microphone away from Babuna and another ordered him to go back to his seat. Watch it all here“After I walked back to my seat someone said “only evolutionists can ask questions,” Babuna told Reuters afterwards. “This is very anti-democratic and very unacademic. If this is a scientific meeting … if you have scientific questions to ask, they should be responded to scientifically, everybody accepts that … if you force people to shut up and don’t let them ask any question … then it is not a scientific theory but an ideology.” The spat was filmed by Babuna’s associate Dr Cihat Gundogdu, who put Atlas of Creationan edited version on the Harun Yahya website.Both men attended the conference with English and Italian versions of Harun Yahya’s super-slick mega-book Atlas of Creation (picture left) in hand. We have done numerous blogs on Islamic creationism, its proponents and its opponents. Some of the links are listed below. But what do you think about the debate and, more importantly, do you think officials at the Gregorian University were right or wrong to yank the microphone from Babuna at a scientific conference?

Evolution gets added boost in Texas schools

Social and religious conservatives in Texas suffered a setback on Thursday when the State Board of Education narrowly voted to ditch a requirement that high school science teachers cover the “strengths and weaknesses” of Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection, which is more popularly known as the theory of evolution.

A final vote on the entire science curriculum is expected today. You can see reports here and here.

The rule to teach “both sides of the evolution debate” had been in place since the 1980s, but national interest has been rekindled in recent years by attempts to get Biblical creationism taught in U.S. schools in one form of another.

What’s the use of apologising to Darwin?

Charles DarwinThe Church of England has just issued an apology to Charles Darwin for opposing his theory of evolution when The Origin of Species first came out 150 years ago. The Roman Catholic Church says it sees no need to say “sorry” for its initial hostility to the same theory. But both are now reconciled to evolution as solid science and are getting active in presenting their view that it is not incompatible with Christian faith. Is one approach better than the other to get this message across?

Next year’s double anniversary — the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth and 150th anniversary of the publication of The Origin of Species — is one reason to speak up about evolution. Another is the fact that evolution has become an increasingly controversial public issue, especially in the United States, and the debate is dominated by mostly conservative Protestant creationists and “intelligent design” supporters on one side and agnostic/atheistic scientists on the other.

A first edition of The Origin of Species, 13 June 2008/Lucas JacksonThat debate is so entangled in U.S. politics — the latest chapter being the questions about Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin’s views on teaching creationism in schools — that a less polarised view has a hard time getting heard. Trying to walk a middle path can be a tricky business, too, as Rev Michael Reiss in Britain has learned. A biologist and Anglican priest, he has just had to resign as the Royal Society‘s director of education after causing an uproar among scientists by saying creationism could be discussed as a “world view” in science class. He wasn’t advocating it, but thought that simply telling students with creationist views that they were wrong would turn them off science completely.

Vatican sees “urgent” need to review Darwin and evolution

Darwin dolls for sale at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, 15 Nov 2005/Shannon StapletonThe Vatican famously “thinks in centuries”. It’s useful to remember that when reading the announcement from its Pontifical Council for Culture about a conference it plans to hold in Rome on Darwin and evolution. Pope Benedict has shown a keen interest in the issue and debated it in a closed session with some former doctoral students in 2006. The Vatican now wants to hold a week-long public conference next March entitled “Biological Evolution: Facts and Theories — A Critical Evaluation 150 years after the The Origin of Species“.

The announcement (translated from the original and more florid Italian) said: “150 years after the publication of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species, it is difficult to find a scientific sphere entirely free from direct or indirect influences of the theory of evolution. Especially in recent decades, this theory has experienced so many changes, and such significant changes, that a critical reflection is very urgent. Moreover, there are obvious philosophical and theological problems raised by the theory of evolution that cause many emotional and even ideological reactions.”

STOQ logoThe conference from March 3 to 7 will be organised by the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome and the University of Notre Dame in the United States, as part of a wider project called STOQ (Science, Theology and the Ontological Quest). It will be attended, the announcement declared with a flourish, by “luminaries of science and famous philosophers and theologians”.

Pope Benedict’s evolution book finally comes out in English

Creation and Evolution bookcoverAn English translation of Pope Benedict’s 2006 discussion of evolution with his former students has finally come out and I recommend it to anyone who’s confused about where the Roman Catholic Church stands on this issue. It’s called Creation and Evolution and is publised by Ignatius Press in the U.S. The discussion was held in German and the original text, Schöpfung und Evolution, appeared in April 2007.

I mention the confusion about this issue because a 2005 New York Times op-ed piece by Vienna Cardinal Christoph Schönborn prompted supporters of “intelligent design” (ID) to think the Church was embracing their argument. He denied that to me in an interview a few months later. So when it became known that Benedict would discuss evolution with his former doctoral students — his so-called Schülerkreis — at Castel Gandolfo in September 2006, there was considerable interest in what he would say.

Schöpfung und Evolution bookcoverThe German publisher, Sankt Ulrich Verlag in Augsburg, sent me a PDF version of the book in German under embargo, so I wrote a news story the day it appeared. In the book, Benedict said science was too narrow to explain creation, which was not random as Darwinists insist, but has a rationality that goes back to God. He argued this on philosophical and theological grounds, not on the faith arguments that creationists use (“the Bible says so”) or the biology-based examples that ID prefers to argue that some life forms are too complex to have evolved.