The right to one’s own beliefs

The Court of Appeal hearing for the Felix Ngole case was heard in the Royal Courts of Justice on the 12th & 13th March 2019.  The case reference is C1/2017/3073 and the transcript was licensed and released under the Open Government Licence 3.0 with the consent of Felix Ngole.  For anybody interested (and concerned) about the right to freedom of belief, the transcript makes for fascinating reading.  The submissions of Mr. P. Diamond (representing Felix Ngole) and Ms. S. Hannett (representing the University of Sheffield) were heard by Lord Justice Irwin, Lord Justice Haddon-Cave and Sir Jack Beatson.

For those who need a reminder, the background to this case is that Felix Ngole, a social work student at Sheffield University was first disciplined, and then dismissed from his Degree course, following the anonymous receipt of copies of some FaceBook posts, where Felix had chosen to engage online with some people who were attacking a US county clerk, Kim Davies, withdrawing from that discussion when he felt that it had degenerated into name-calling and abuse.  Someone had taken the trouble to go back through his FaceBook feeds in order to craft a case against him, one that the university authorities took very seriously, despite Felix’s exemplary academic track-record, and despite the absence of any direct evidence that he had ever behaved in a manner that might be interpreted as discriminatory towards others.  Felix is a Christian, and the topic at the heart of the FaceBook discussion was same-sex marriage.  Clearly, in the contemporary context, this is indicative of a battle of worldviews, but the transcript reveals a great deal of how the issue of toleration is working in practice.  The two days of the Appeal hearing amount to 99 pages and 43 pages respectively, so please forgive me for attempting to summarise some of the key points – the transcript is public domain, and immensely readable, so you can check for yourself.  Here then are some of the key themes:

(1) Mr. Diamond, representing Felix, from the outset places this case within the broader context of our freedoms and their interaction with the demands of the State – our own rights to freedom of belief and the articulation of that belief.  We do not need to look very far to observe States which have a profound allergy to such freedoms.  Equally clearly, Ms. Hannett is keen to restrict the entire scope of the consideration to this single context, that of social work.  She argues that it is a ‘special case’, quite separate from any other professional context, but nowhere supplies any basis for that assertion – it merely hangs in the air.  Not surprisingly, the Lords Chief Justice raise the prospect of multiple other professional contexts which might be caught if Sheffield University win the Appeal.  All of us can see that the erosion of hard-won liberties continues incrementally, if such matters are only considered on a piece-meal basis.

(2) There are undercurrents to the original case which suggest that it has proceeded on the basis of some muddying of the waters.  The original communication to Felix summoning him to a disciplinary meeting did not specify the reason.  When pressed, the University would not disclose the reason.  The accuser was always anonymous.  Later on, it was found that the notes of the meeting had been destroyed.  It seems clear from the transcript, that Felix had asked for clarification as to how he might better manage the sensitive intersection between belief and his professional role, and made very little progress in that direction.  An independent witness, there to support Felix, attests to this lack of clarity throughout.

(3) One chilling aspect which emerges from the narrative is how little the University authorities understand about people like Felix, orthodox Bible-believing Christians.  It is not just that they do not like Christian belief, they consider it inherently discriminatory, and they have no understanding of why such belief may hold together, what justifies it, how it applies consistently.  There is a profound ignorance at a fundamental level, but nobody cares about that – the enforcement of the secular mindset has done its work.  Instead of any nuanced, two-way reasoning of the issues, the onus is on Felix to understand the alternative worldview and accommodate himself wholly to it.  This is what totalitarianism looks like in practice.

(4) One word or theme which is prominent in the transcript is the word ‘ambiguity’.  At times, the text suggests that the problem is not Felix’s beliefs per se, but rather that he chose to express them.  This seems to be an inadequate emphasis – all of us are, in some sense, the product of our belief-systems, in terms of the ways in which we choose to live our lives.  The only difference between a muzzled Felix, and a Felix summoned to a disciplinary hearing, is where someone else has identified him as holding those internalised beliefs.  And the one thing which makes that difference is some kind of communication, so those beliefs are now out in the open.  Apparently, Prof. Marsh, who presided over Felix’s dismissal from the Degree course is not subject to this kind of limitation, and is publicly active in LGBTQI++ matters.

At other times, the argument revolves more around how he expressed himself, whether Felix articulated his views moderately, or robustly, or via quotations from the Bible.  Bear in mind that the context (here) for such expression is only where another person asks for a direct explanation, rather than the alternative scenario of a bigot who sought to impose his views on all and sundry.  It was accepted by the University that such a situation would never have described Felix who had always been courteous and considerate towards others, including same-sex couples.  Methinks that this aspect is something of a red-herring: it would not have mattered how carefully or lovingly Felix articulated his beliefs – once they were out, so would he be.

Ms Hannett draws what seems to me to be a quite naïve and unrealistic distinction between ‘posting on FaceBook’, and ‘preaching in a Church’ (Felix is a lay-pastor).  In her dichotomised world, the first is unacceptable, whereas the latter is (barely) acceptable.  There is enough equivocation in the text to render even that interpretation suspect, but even so, it will not work.  For church sermons get listened to (by many), broadcast, and then put on the interweb.  And, as most of us now know, some atheist activists are visiting churches to record or note sermons so that they may ‘out’ people that they wish to get rid of, from our universities and colleges.  In practice, there is no distinction to be drawn between the ‘private’ discourse within the walls of a church, and the ‘public’ discourse of social media.  All is one, and the clear lesson we are to draw from Ms Hannett’s argument is that Christians have nowhere to hide, and will be pursued into our ghettos, no matter how inoffensive and quiet we try to be.  This hints very strongly in the direction of ‘thought-crime’ being the real offender, so Ms Hannett’s protestations about not judging Felix for his beliefs ring somewhat hollow.

In closing…

We await the judgement from this Appeal, but what is left hanging in the air is the precious idea of toleration.  As a multicultural, multi-faith society, we have to learn to tolerate each other, otherwise the word might as well be excised from the dictionary.  To seek to argue that one particular worldview trumps another is simply to subvert the very idea of equality, and reduce everything to some kind of power-play.  That’s where we’re headed unless someone in authority peers over the brink, and perceives the nature of the destination.

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The devil is in. The detail.

Eugène_Delacroix_-_Le_28_Juillet._La_Liberté_guidant_le_peuple

Eugène Delacroix [Public domain]: Le 28 Juillet. La Liberté guidant le peuple

My current field of study is the eighteenth century, focusing on the complex point of intersection between ‘Enlightenment thinking’ and Christian theology.  It is a fascinating period, and for some years the process of studying has unearthed many aspects of the dynamic between radically different worldviews that I had not anticipated when I began the journey.

Within the literature, this period is referred to as ‘The Long Eighteenth Century’, and initially I used to wonder why that was.  After all, one century seems to be much like another, in terms of duration.  Briefly, I even wondered, a little frivolously, whether it just seemed long to those living at the time.  After all, the three years since the Brexit Referendum feel like a lifetime.  Frank O’Gorman, in his book of the same name (Arnold, 1997), argues for what appears to be something of a pragmatic consensus amongst academics that the ‘Long 18th Century’ refers to a period running from 1688 through to 1832.  The bookends to this period are therefore the Glorious Revolution (1688) and the Reform Act (1832).  As centuries go, I guess a period of 144 years is, indeed, a bit on the ‘long’ side.

I am more interested in the first of these two bookends.  What is it about this revolution which might make it ‘glorious’?  Part of the answer(2) to that question, is when you compare it to the alternatives:  the English Civil War (1642-1651) was bloody and divisive, and that division extended to the junction between King Charles I’ head and shoulders, the consequent interposition of the Cromwellian Protectorate (1653-1658), followed by the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660, under Charles II.  Roll forwards to 1688, and whilst British politicians were regarding with increasing dismay the disastrous tactics of King James II, it is unsurprising that there was little appetite for a return to such schism.  A private invitation (from five Whig and two Tory magnates) to William of Orange, was succeeded by William’s decision to invade with a small army of 14,000 troops at Torbay and the rest, as they say, is history.  Well, I guess pretty much all of it is, from our perspective.  James’ considerably larger standing army failed to engage with the invaders, and very shortly after he had fled to France – this revolution was ‘glorious’ in terms of its essentially peaceful nature, and O’Gorman comments that this was “the achievement of a coalition of Whigs and Tories”.  Roll forward again to 1789, and when the French had their own revolution, a very different kind of ideology prevailed, with  distinctly contrasting outcomes.  And, again, in 1848.  And, again, peut-être, in 1968. And, who knows, perhaps again in 2019, unless Macron gets a handle on the extent of public dissent and violent action on Parisian streets.

It is notoriously difficult to draw lessons from history, but perhaps it is all we have to work from when seeking to understand our own perplexing circumstances.  It is certainly a step up the ladder from conjuring explanatory narratives out of thin air, or somehow pretending that the past didn’t happen, and proceeding on the basis of ideological novelty.

Perhaps one lesson is not to sneer at other cultures, based upon some false notion of the impregnability of ‘britishness’, or some similar concept.  Our own national history is hardly a model of perfection.  But there are some themes worth exploring.  One is the ‘scratch the surface’ idea – the apparent stabilities and resilience of Western Europe are sustained by fundamentally tenuous forces (taxation plus redistribution, and the centralisation of bureaucratic rule), which means that the tissue of a perceived reality can be torn apart by, say, people wearing yellow vests.  Populism in many of its variants is, at root, a drive for a sense of identity – and that’s not something that can be enforced via a kind of regulated utopianism.  Indeed, one might argue that populism is a reaction to the strained fictions of EU top-downism.

The glorious revolution of 1688 owed much of its beneficial outcome to the consensus achieved between Whigs and Tories.  For a variety of reasons it is difficult to imagine such circumstances pertaining now, when public and vocal demonstrations of profound division are played out interminably, on a kind of continuous loop.  When the massed hordes took to the streets and social media the day after a democratic vote in 2016, in order to assert a contrary will, you know the writing is on the wall, that the word ‘democracy’ floats free of its historical context.  Indeed, the real threat may not be Brexit at all, but rather the collapse of the puffball of democracy, having been systematically eviscerated of its ideological substance.

OK, so perhaps the ‘Glorious Revolution’ had its faults.  Perhaps it wasn’t so glorious after all – but it did almost immediately spawn a few dollops of new legislation (The Bill of Rights, 1689; The Toleration Act, 1689; The Act of Settlement, 1700), all of which, within the context of their day, feel positively enlightened.  From a 21st Century perspective, there are things there we’d do differently (it’s not that difficult to spot bones of contention), but the Protestant Christian moderation implicit within these new laws does actually demonstrate a nuanced awareness of recent history and present dangers, in order to chart the safest progress through the chaos of the day.  As our own parliament engages in its Nth latest most futile indicative votes, MPs wage war against the very democracy that justifies their existence, and the multitudes engage in orgies of ad-hominems on the streets, there is a strange absence of evidence of progress.


(1) Frank O’Gorman, The Long Eighteenth Century – British Political & Social History 1688-1832, (London, Arnold, 1997).
(2) Another part is that the revolution of 1688-89 saw a transition to constitutional monarchy.
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Galileo goes to jail

516AXnh7GkL._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_I was recently doing some background reading for a brief venting of spleen over the Humanists UK indignant spluttering triggered by Damian Hinds’ observations regarding ‘faith schools’.  One article I looked at was the original interview published on the Conservatives Home website – not an especially edifying piece to begin with, but it rapidly spiralled down the U-bend once I started reading the ‘comments’.  Often the comments are more interesting than the article they are responding to – and in this case, they communicated a powerful message of a kind of enculturated ignorance.

Let’s be clear about this.  Around 80% of the comments were entirely negative about the idea of ‘faith schools’, and they were especially enraged at the very idea that Britain might be (or might have been) a ‘Christian country’.  Of course, ignorance as a state of mind ought to lead one to not having any kind of opinion one way or another – so I am not using the term as a descriptor of a kind of intellectual blank slate.  Indeed, those who articulated their antagonisms to such ideas had clearly cobbled together their justification from somewhere, just not from the kinds of reputable sources that might have lent some rigour to their stance.  As I worked my way through the comments, it struck me that I kept hearing the same kinds of idea, frequently couched in exactly the same stultified terms:  “religion is opposed to science”, “Galileo was persecuted by the church because of his science”, “early Christians shut down scientific endeavour”, “the Middle Ages (dark ages!) were a period of religious oppression and anti-science”…and so it goes on.  Indeed, the way in which the polemic is cashed-out, one almost gets the impression that absolutely nothing had happened on Planet Earth until Darwin burst upon the scene like a modern-day messiah.

This is a particular kind of ignorance.  It does not reflect a complete absence of information, a void.  It represents a kind of knowledge, which presumably has been derived from somewhere or other, but where that information has been almost entirely denatured of context, factual veracity or relational connections to other disciplines or bodies of knowledge.  I hope that the commenters did not pick this drivel up in the state education system, for that would suggest that the system is less interested in education, than it is in a form of ideological conditioning.  I suspect that the source may well be the myriad of unaccountable atheist primers that exist online, which are designed to feed the appetites of the pathologically skeptical whilst leaving the student’s rational faculties in sleep mode.

Thankfully, there are dependable, well-written and accessible treatments of this subject for those who wish to leave such mythologies behind them without assaulting their tender minds with anything explicitly religious or (horrors) from the pens of Christians (of which, incidentally, there are plenty, exhibiting zero dilution in terms of academic rigour).  Here are a few useful examples:

The Penultimate Curiosity (How science swims in the slipstream of ultimate questions) – by Robert Wagner & Andrew Briggs (Oxford University Press, 2017).

A Fortunate Universe (Life in a Finely-Tuned Cosmos) by Geraint F. Lewis and Luke A. Barnes (Cambridge University Press, 2016).

Anything by Peter Harrison is invariably excellent, but The Bible, Protestantism and the Rise of Natural Science (Cambridge University Press, 2001) is a good place to start.

And, recently, I came across Galileo Goes to Jail by Ronald L. Numbers (Harvard University Press, 2009) which supplies a helpful response to all of those wide-of-the-mark mythologies, scattered like pixie-dust across most atheist websites, and throughout the secular media.  For those keen to deprogram themselves, this modest volume covers 25 of the more popular (mostly atheist) myths about the relationship between science and religion and doubles-up as a useful source of references.  For those who fancy a more discursive treatment, John Hedley Brooke’s Science and Religion (Cambridge University Press, 2014) provides a more meaty option at 542 pages.

None of these texts prop up some kind of ‘fundamentalist’ spin on Darwin and his disciples, but rather, in a satisfyingly nuanced way, show the absolute interdependence of religious and scientific understandings of reality.  The Dawkinsian reductionism which we are relentlessly fed by the media is ultimately self-defeating.

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The BHA and ‘Faith Schools’

It started with yet another peevish whine from the British Humanist Association, now known as ‘Humanists UK’, prompted by Damian Hinds’ opaque comment about Britain being a ‘Christian country’.  There are any number of problems with this narrative, not least being the simplistic way it plays out on the humanism.org.uk website, although this, increasingly, is what one must expect.  Of course, Hinds is one of those most repellent of beings, a Tory, and, these days, the Venn Diagram comprising Atheism and Leftwing ideology exhibits an apparent 90% overlap.  Hinds’ utterances therefore indicate a kind of double-criminality and, naturally enough, attract this kind of attack.  Presumably, his “cosy relationship with the Catholic Church” is something akin to a hanging offence, if it were not for these enlightened times, where more leniency exists for returning ISIS fighters than for such individuals.

But that’s the least of it.  My children attended Church in Wales schools where they received an education which was as chock-full of undiluted naturalism (the philosophy, not the science), moral relativism, LGBTQI+++ ideology and general nihilism, as they might have been exposed to in any secular institution, one endorsed unreservedly by Andrew Copson.  Indeed, the quasi-religious nature of that educational establishment supplied that propaganda with the kind of imprimatur which should leave secular humanists gibbering with excitement.  If I was Copson, I’d be calling for more faith schools so long as they are the unwitting puppets of the progressive agenda.  Those of us who can cast our minds back to 2006, will recall that Richard Dawkins was keen to castigate ‘religionists’ for polluting their offspring’s tender minds with toxic religious ideas (or ‘memes’) – but when the boot is on the other foot, well that’s just ‘education’.  Kinda looks the same though, doesn’t it?

Still, I am far from sure that Damian Hinds could ever have been correct, in his description of Britain as a ‘Christian country’.  I was recently reading the history of William Wilberforce, that untiringly persistent force behind the impetus to abolish slavery, and one of his outspoken opponents was Lord Melbourne, who tetchily argued, “Things have come to a pretty pass when religion is allowed to invade public life” (my italics).  The Earl of Abingdon echoed the same kind of sentiment, saying “Humanity is a private feeling, not a public principle to act upon.”  Whilst not for the faint-hearted, Thomas Clarkson’s meticulous two volume account, History of the Abolition of the Slave Trade (1808) paints a persuasive picture of a culture motivated by commercial interests, and certainly not by Christian values.  If Wilberforce’s explicitly Christian argument represented an ‘invasion’, what on earth could ‘public life’ have actually been like, at the time?  Well, much the same as at the present time, I guess – we live in a culture where Christians are supposed to do good in silence, whilst having no voice or opinion of note in the public space.  They may get patronised with polite applause if they perform their function as an echo-chamber for empty socialist aphorisms at a TUC conference, but that’s about as good as it gets.

Thankfully for all of us, and especially for those who were so cruelly mistreated, Wilberforce was not one to succumb to such pressures, remarkable because he did not enjoy good health.  He repeatedly returned to parliament with motions to repeal slavery in 1792, 1797, 1798, 1799, 1800, 1801 and finally in 1807 when he was, at last, successful.  There is, and there should be, Christianity outside of the ghetto, and that, quite reasonably, should play out within educational contexts – after all, that’s where it all started.

Of course, behind the scenes, Humanists UK are working hard to get humanism accorded the same status as religion, so by that measure all secular schools are, in fact, faith schools.

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A question-begging hypothesis

Recently, I wrote about the misuse of the poor Peppered Moth, in the service of its fickle master, neo-darwinian polemic.  A good friend of mine, H, did not share my perspective and responded, saying “I do not understand why you cannot accept this, Kevin.”  The ‘this’ referred to is the evolutionary paradigm which comes in a variety of guises, but which cumulatively is used to advance some kind of model of undirected biological change at a macro-level, in order to account for the myriad of forms and body-plans which we observe in nature.  H’s statement doesn’t have a question-mark in it, but it does present a query that deserves an answer.  As I reflected on the nature of that kind of answer, it became evident that the ‘why’ of my Darwin-skepticism is, in practice, the product of a journey, rather than derived from a single factor.

Like my friend H, the standard textbook account of Darwinian evolutionary theory formed part of the air I breathed whilst studying Biology, Chemistry and Physics at A’ Level.  Since I intended to go on and pursue this subject at University, I found myself in the Chelmsford Library on Saturday mornings, reading Haeckel, Lamarck, Oparin, Miller-Urey and even beginning to wrestle with Richard Dawkins’ seminal text, The Selfish Gene, which was published in 1976.  I had come to faith in Christ in my seventeenth year but I did not seriously question evolutionary theory, although I did swiftly become aware that it was being used as a blunt instrument to induce skepticism towards religious ideas in young minds.  It simply wasn’t an issue.  My teachers taught it, I respected them, and the subject was mapped out in our textbooks – so I accepted it.  End of story.

Then I went to university to study Biology.  One of the very first courses I pursued was in taxonomy or phylogeny.  This proved to be a bit of an eye-opener.  Firstly, our lecturers were at pains to stress that everything I had learned at A’ Level was either questionable or had been consigned to the Evolutionary Theory Parts Bin.  This was a little difficult to swallow – we had used brand-new, recently published textbooks in my biology classes, so why were they teaching us stuff that the university lecturers argued had been superseded or disproved years ago?  But there was more.

Back in the late 1970s and early 80s, the study of phylogeny was closely linked to Darwin’s tree of life, the map of common ancestry – and judging by what I encounter in secondary school textbooks, it still is.  In relation to this key, core component of the theory, the course was a revelation – whilst the underlying Darwinian assumptions were never, for one moment, open to question, there was a continually repeated mantra which did, after a while begin to have an impact.  It tended to take this kind of form:  “We have no (fossil) evidence for this, but we believe that, at this point (in the Cretaceous period, or whenever) X evolved into Y“.  That is to say, the assertions regarding key moments of biological change were never made in relation to the evidentiary basis for them, but were rather justified with the “we believe that” formulation.  If any of us had the temerity to raise questions about this (few did), the issue of the evidentiary vacuum was always handled with the ‘jam tomorrow’ answer.  The evidence was just bound to come along – after all, the theory is true, isn’t it?  In many respects, this was simply a regurgitation of the stance taken by Darwin himself:  the theory was so neat, so appealing, that the evidence was somehow bound to materialise at some point: the universe owed it to Darwin, and wouldn’t let him down.  Riffing off Ovid’s Metamorphoses leads to a rebirth of Elizabethan alchemy.

Alongside this kind of holding pattern, the evidentiary vacuity was dealt with in various ways:  evolution, as a process, is too slow to be observable in practice, we were told.  Or, it was asserted, evolution proceeds by sudden, rapid jumps that leave no trace in the fossil record.  Sneaky! – whatever the process is, it’s either too slow or too fast to be observable in practice.  Or, a very great play was made of certain instances of things which superficially appeared to support the theory – Eohippus, Archaeopteryx and Drosophilla were favourites at the time – although why the appearance of anything might be deemed significant, in this strange world where nothing is as it appears, is difficult to understand.  More recently, I guess we could cite Lenski’s long-running experiments showing bacterial adaptation to Vitamin C metabolism, and of course that re-evaluation of the Peppered Moth that I wrote about.  Even at that time, it felt as if the actual evidentiary basis was simply too insubstantial to bear the weight of a theory which, in terms of its practical deployment, had been used to redefine how we viewed ourselves and our world.  This seemed important, as university life seethed with with the kind of militant atheism where a central criticism of Christians was that our fanciful beliefs floated free of the real world, where evidence was required.

Of course, pursuing a Biology Degree is not really about developing one’s critical faculties.  It is about gaining a Degree, and I do not think that I was any different to any of my compadres, other than in experiencing a growing sense of unease about the universal power of a theory which resisted one’s ability to pin it down, interrogate its basis, evaluate its integrity.  My one piece of articulated skepticism about evolutionary theory, a written assignment, was returned by my tutor with red lines through it, and a humiliating grade.  I learned the lesson well from this experience, although I do not think that my articulation of doubt was any more vacuous than the prevailing orthodoxy’s justification of its own claims.  Many academics within this field swiftly learn how to play the game, and that serves to perpetuate the Darwinian myth that holds everything in its sway.

The experience of achieving a Biology Degree weakened the respect I held for Neo-Darwinianism, and whilst my understanding of Christian theology was progressing (slowly) at the same time, I think it perhaps significant that the primary driver of this change was not, as atheists tend to argue, ‘religious indoctrination’ but rather the nature of the academic approach itself.  Subsequently, of course, I have learned a great deal more.  I have read a great deal around the history of Darwin’s original, pivotal, publication in 1859 and have seen that it was more driven by (a) metaphysics, (b) Victorian modernism and (c) an emotional response to personal tragedy than it was by the ‘science’ itself.  Darwin’s heartiest supporter when publishing ‘The Origin of Species’, T. H. Huxley, was not persuaded of the veracity of the theory, but he certainly understood its value as a blunt instrument to attack religious belief, something he did with great enthusiasm.  Given that evolutionary theory delivers little practical value in purely scientific terms, that is precisely how it continues to be used, prolifically, within the media and educational system.

Randall Hedtke, in his useful treatise on the 6th edition of The Origin of Species, wherein he (successfully) argues that Darwin does effectively discredit his own theory, comments that: 

Darwin was able to play fast and loose with scientific methodology because origins research is metaphysical, meaning no compelling practicality exists that would dictate how the evidence must be interpreted.

Randall Hedtke, Secrets of the Sixth Edition (Oregon, Master Books: 1983, 2010), p58.

A little later, whilst commenting on how evolutionary theory is taught in contemporary textbooks, he references a number of examples which demonstrate that,

One thing all the textbooks avoid is…counterinductive thinking in their presentation of the evolution evidence.  Counterinductive thinking is critical thinking…Natural selection’s incipiency problem is censored from the curriculum.

Hedtke, Secrets of the Sixth Edition, p62.

And that has been precisely my own experience.

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Seasoning the evolutionary fairytale

When I was studying Biology at ‘A’ Level, the Peppered Moth was advanced as the classic evidence for Darwinian evolution.  Admittedly, Haeckel’s imaginary ‘ontological recapitulation’ drawings were also flourished at us as authoritative proofs, so perhaps I should have been less credulous about the moths.  But then, I was in my teenage years, and clamping firmly onto the Darwinian bait was what everyone did.

Most children who studied Biology at secondary school no doubt have prominent memories of moths, and finches and strangely-shaped glass vessels, containing exotic gases, out of which novel forms of life emerge spontaneously – because it just does.  The Peppered Moth was a great favourite because it supposedly proved how light-coloured insects evolved into darker-coloured forms in order to survive predation during the industrial revolution.

At University, still studying Biology, the moths figured prominently – as they did in the main secondary school textbooks when I was training as a science-teacher later on.  Like Monty Python’s famous cafe, where you could have everything you wanted provided it included Spam, those darn Peppered Moths were always on the menu.

Apparently, they still are.  Wikipedia features the little darlings prominently, as perhaps one might expect.  The same story is regurgitated on the Butterfly Conservation website, and BBC Bitesize pulls off the same trick.  There would be little point in listing all the instances of this childhood fairytale that exist on the interweb – Google generates 895,000 of them, the internet equivalent of the repetition of myth.

Of course, the whole Peppered Moth saga is, in fact, no persuasive evidence of Darwinian evolution at all.  If the science is at all to be believed, there were more dark-coloured insects around at the time of the industrial revolution (when those trees got sooty), and rather less of them after the Clean Air Act.  Evolution is supposedly a process whereby ‘natural selection’ leads to permanent adaptive changes in populations of organisms, fuelled by a continual background instance of genetic mutations.  There has been no such change here, and yet the Peppered Moth is still heralded, on a multiplicity of websites as “one of the best known examples of evolution by natural selection, Darwin’s great discovery, and is often referred to as ‘Darwin’s moth’” (according to Butterfly Conservation).

However, I did, quite intentionally italicise the use of the word ‘if’ in the above paragraph when referring to our belief in the science itself, for even that is highly questionable.  Those grand claims are based upon some work conducted by the physician, Bernard Kettlewell in the 1950s who boarded the Darwinian juggernaut and made his place in history by discovering what he called ‘Darwin’s missing evidence’.  This was a big help to those promoting the evolutionary story as it was, frankly, not furnished with the most persuasive stock of supporting evidence.  In fact, Kettlewell’s research turns out to be deeply flawed (we knew this apparently in the 1980s, but they certainly weren’t telling school-children!).  Peppered Moths don’t normally rest on tree trunks during the day when they could be predated – they hide away under branches and fly by night.  This seems an altogether more sensible solution than the painstaking evolutionary equivalent of mutating over the millennia, only to find that some Government had invalidated all that undirected genetic change, by passing the Clear Air Act.  By releasing moths onto tree trunks during daylight, Kettlewell had created a scenario that simply did not exist in the wild – and, to add insult to injury, in order to take those famous photos (you know, the ones in all the textbooks), he actually glued moths to tree bark, so they couldn’t hide away.  Never has a small insect been so misused and misrepresented.  It is a surprise that the Peppered Moth has not developed a complex as a result, so perhaps the brief lifespan may be an aid to its psychological equilibrium.

You couldn’t make it up, but evolutionary polemicists did.  Who wants the data to get in the way of a good story, eh?

Which reminds me of Richard Dawkins’ famous aphorism from his 2006 blockbuster, The God Delusion.  Here we go, this is Dawkins at his vintage best:

By contrast, what I, as a scientist, believe (for example, evolution) I believe not because of reading a holy book but because I have studied the evidence…When a science book is wrong, somebody eventually discovers the mistake and it is corrected in subsequent books.  That conspicuously doesn’t happen with holy books.

This is simply not true.  At best, it’s a misleading comment.  At worst, it represents the deliberate promulgation of dogma that achieve a kind of pampered, protected species status in the world of ideas.  And, yes, they’re still teaching this nonsense to our kids.

Postscript

I am grateful to a friend for pointing out that there has been a subsequent attempt to validate Kettlewell’s research, as the evident flaws to it had been a source of great consternation to ideological evolutionists such as Jerry Coyne (Not black and white, Nature 396 (1998)).  Most of the sources footnoted on the Wikipedia article are (typically) inauspicious, but one did stand out as a valid, counterbalancing contribution.

Between 2001 and 2006, Michael Majerus studied Peppered Moths within a large, unpolluted rural garden in the Cambridge area, attempting to compensate for the perceived deficiencies in the earlier research.  Whilst, unfortunately, his premature death interrupted the flow of his research, he had already admitted that his “results may be somewhat biased towards lower parts of the tree, due to sampling technique“.  It is no surprise, therefore that his sample of 135 moths shows a greater exposure to other parts of the trees, than those identified by previous researchers, who had, quite rightly, called into question the kinds of conclusions drawn by Kettlewell.  I managed to track down his analysis and this indicates that 35% of those moths observed were located on tree trunks (where they are more liable to predation) and 65% of those observed, on branches and twigs (where the dangers of predation are less).  Clearly, the actual parameters for Kettlewell’s research could no longer be replicated, due to changes in air quality, and (as Majerus observes) numbers of the darker moths (carbonara) are in decline anyway.  As a result there is no statistically significant difference in the daytime predation on darker or lighter variants of the Peppered Moth, and the data indicates that at nighttime, the bats are partial to both variants equally.

Whilst respecting the sheer care and attention to detail of Majerus’ work, the more one reads, the more one is impressed that this is a ‘much ado about nothing’ exercise.  Before the industrial revolution, both variants of the moth existed.  After the Clean Air Act, both of them still exist, side by side.  One has not ‘adapted’ or ‘evolved’ into the other, which is the kind of inference in the textbooks, and was certainly the claim made by Kettlewell.  The best one can say is that survival rates of either variant will differ, depending upon natural conditions, which is a bit like saying that the snow will last for longer if the temperature remains below freezing.  Coyne’s own comments, criticising Judith Hooper’s book Of Moths and Men, quoted by Majerus, frame the problem:  “By peddling innuendo and failing to distinguish clearly the undeniable fact of selection from the contested agent of selection…” (original emphasis preserved).  Simply categorising variations in moth survival as ‘selection’ and leaving agency on the shelf, gets us no closer to a proof of Darwinism.  Majerus’ work is more evocative of a cherished icon being lovingly polished, than a failed hypothesis being convincingly rescued.

Perhaps as importantly, whilst Kettlewell’s observations provide insubstantial insights into a hypothetical process which purports to hinge on the interaction between genetic mutations and natural selection, they have largely been invalidated by Sermonti & Castatini (mid 1980s), Mikkola (1984) and Jablonski (2012).  The latter appears to have caused Coyne considerable anguish, and this backdrop helps to emphasise the sheer paucity of any direct evidence for Darwinism.  Every time this happens, the ensuing consternation attains the status of a kind of crisis of faith.

The stakes are high:  when Majerus presented his own results in 2007, he reemphasised again the need to teach the story of the Peppered Moth because “it provides after all: The Proof of Evolution” (his own emphasis).  Needless to say, that message was swiftly seized upon by those who are wholly invested in the polemic.

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Wombat, wombat, wombat…

Quite a few years back, the members of our study group bet our (then) pastor that he could not find a use for the word ‘wombat’ in his Sunday sermon.  I think most of us were pretty sure that either his creative powers were not up to the job, or that he lacked the natural cheek to pull it off.  Substantial quantities of chocolate cake hung on the outcome, and as it happened we lost the wager.  Next Sunday, there were six mentions of ‘wombat’.  Don’t ask me how he used the word: the whole point is that there was no context for it, no real relevance to its inclusion which lent the word ‘wombat’ some kind of meaningful significance.

Yesterday, I spent an enjoyable hour or so watching the BBC4 program, ‘The Secret Life of Rock Pools‘, originally screened in 2013 (my wife recorded it for me this August when it was shown again).  It’s an excellent investigation of life within the littoral zone, looking at the challenges facing such organisms as limpets, hermit crabs, algae, barnacles, sea anemones and then exploring the ways in which these fascinating creatures are adapted to this punishing and changeable environment.  As I watched, I was transported nearly forty years back to the time of my Environmental Biology degree, exploring the rocky Gower beaches.

Of course, the programme was not altogether an experience of unalloyed joy.  The presenter, Professor Richard Fortey (palaeontologist) was doing his own wombat thing.  Every other minute, the word ‘evolution’ was smuggled into the narration – not because it was relevant, not because it helped us understand littoral ecology any better, not because it shed any insight whatsoever as to the remarkable adaptation of these fascinating creatures, but simply to remind viewers that the concept of evolution possesses a kind of overarching, magical power to control our minds.  I was left wondering whether he too had succumbed to some kind of bet in respect of random and disparate references to the magic word, and if that were the case, what prize had he won for such a superlative performance?  The price for such a feat of mass-indoctrination must surely be on a monumental scale.

At times, one is tempted towards the idealistic belief that a word such as ‘evolution’ possesses explanatory power, given the way it is force-fed to the masses.  I spent some time reflecting on each instance of its use by Prof. Fortey, and concluded that at no point did the word ever attain that kind of significance.  For those of us who have studied Darwin, and the metaphysics which framed his theory, the phrase ‘thinly-disguised tautology’ is perhaps the most pertinent explanation, but somehow one expects something better of a science programme, at least one paid for by licence-payer fees.  Clearly, that is a wholly unrealistic expectation.  Instead the narrative proceeded via a sequence of token references to evolution and evolutionary adaptation sprinkled like a kind of pixie dust over the more definitive biological content, as if such concepts as evidence, logic and meaning had been leached out of our consideration.  Within this kind of thought-world, all that is left is the mantra, which one is forced to keep repeating to the extent that it attains a kind of existence entirely independent of reality.

‘Religion’ tends to get short shrift at the hands of our secular media, and yet one cannot dispel the notion that what we are encountering here is an act of religious devotion.  The word ‘evolution’ is uttered in reverential tones, with the kind of frequency which echoes the use of glossolalia within certain religious traditions, or the kinds of incantation associated with transmutation, and is similarly unquestionable lest one break the faith.  No allusion to its significance or explanatory powers is apparently needed.  The narrator (in this case Prof. Fortey) looks out of the screen, his eyes imbued with the piercing gaze of the mystic, willing us to surrender our minds and souls to the magic.  No American fundamentalist tele-evangelist tried harder to sell his wares, or with less appeal to genuine intellectual rigour.  Just believe, brethren…

In the wonderful world of Darwinian Fairytales, it’s wombats all the way down.

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