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textbooks in my biology classes, so why were they teaching us stuff that the university lecturers argued had been superseded or disproved years ago?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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Heretic!

I have just finished reading Prof. Matti Leisola’s excellent account of a lifetime in academic research in the field of bio-engineering.  Published earlier in 2018, it provides a fascinating insight into molecular biology, and the clear messages this field presents in relation to the subject of Intelligent Design.

Before I turn to consider the book, I wanted to note in passing the way in which this man and his work is presented on the internet.  First off, you won’t find him on Wikipedia – at least not at first glance.  Given that Wikipedia and its trolls seem to see themselves as the means for validating an individual’s status on the planet, that’s not an insignificant fact.  There is a Finnish Wiki page (Leisola is a Finn) and, having run it through Google Translate, one is able to detect the characteristic imprint of the kind of simplistic reductionism employed by this source:  Leisola is forced into that convenient box labeled ‘creationist’, because everyone knows that such people are anti-science, anti-rational and believe the world is flat.  Creationists are instantly dismissible, with a wave of the hand.

The RationalWiki page does something similar – Leisola is plonked, unceremoniously, on their list of ‘creation scientists’, as if merely appearing there is sufficient evidence of crimes against intellectual endeavour.

And that’s it.  One would not know that Prof. Leisola (born 1947) had published 140 peer-reviewed articles in the field, and won a number of awards in 1987, 1997, 2000 and 2003 for research that places him at the forefront of molecular biology.  His 2018 book, ‘Heretic’ is a retrospective look at a lifetime in research, reflecting upon the nature of his interactions with the scientific community, as his own work on enzymes began to demonstrate the utter inadequacy of Darwinian evolutionary mechanisms as an explanation for what he was finding at a molecular level.  In his conclusions, he is clearly not alone – others, such as James Shapiro, Professor of Microbiology at the University of Chicago, have also understood that the Darwinian paradigm is a busted flush – and actually contributes nothing to the ‘science’ itself.

Leisola realised, quite early in his career, that evolutionary explanations were constructed out of rhetoric and circular reasoning, and – more importantly – provided negligible insight into the fantastically-complex and organised functional components at a cellular level.  His book shows, in careful steps, how his own views developed through a synthesis between his research and the fruits from wider projects such as Encode. He demonstrates that it is perfectly possible to be an ‘intellectually fulfilled’ and productive scientist without having to submit one’s thinking processes to Darwinian dogma.  Look!  No pink unicorns.  No incipient tendency towards flat-earthism.  No pathological desire to smuggle ‘god’ into every research paper, or present the operation of the natural world as an interminable sequence of supernatural events.  These kinds of attribution trot lightly off the tongues of those who view science through the burkha of atheism.

No, what we find is just solid, steady, reliable, reputable science.  As the title of his book suggests, Leisola’s very existence within the academy surely should not be possible, if one were to take the rhetoric of Messrs Dawkins, Coyne or Krauss seriously.  That thinking Christians can deliver such value in scientific terms, without embarrassing themselves through a superfluity of superstition, must surely irk the high priests of the new atheism.  Yet, Leisola pulls it off with consummate ease.  And, more importantly, demonstrates that Intelligent Design (ID) has been a better predictor of scientific outcomes than the prevailing Darwinian orthodoxy.  ‘Junk DNA’ is a classic case in point.  Richard Dawkins’ prediction in 1976 (The Selfish Gene) as well as those of Orgel & Crick (1980), Futuyama (2005), Shermer (2006), Coyne (2009) and Avise (2010) have all been  invalidated by our exploration of the genome and we have arrived at an understanding that correlates with the model which has been consistently articulated by ID theorists.

I close with a brief extract, where Leisola employs the analogy of the early theory of phlogiston, a mysterious substance which was supposedly released during the burning process.  Despite serious doubts about its viability as an explanatory theory, phlogiston was foundational to chemistry education for one and a half centuries.  This, says Leisola, is just like…

The Darwinian theory of evolution (is the phlogiston of our day), festooned with a myriad and growing number of patches.  Evolution is slow and gradual, except when it’s fast.  It is dynamic and created huge changes over time, except when it keeps everything the same for millions of years.  It explains both extreme complexity and elegant simplicity.  It tells us how birds learned to fly and how some lost that ability.  Evolution made cheetahs fast, and turtles slow.  Some creatures it made big and others small; some gloriously beautiful, and some boringly grey.  It forced fish to walk and walking animals to return to the sea.  It diverges except when it converges; it produces exquisitely fine-tuned designs except when it produces junk.  Evolution is random without direction except when it moves towards a target.  Life under evolution is a cruel battlefield except when it demonstrates altruism.  Evolution explains virtues and vice, love and hate, religion and atheism.  And it does all this with a growing number of ancillary hypotheses.  Modern evolution is the Rube Goldberg of theoretical constructs.  And what is the result of all this speculative ingenuity?  Like the defunct theory of phlogiston, it explains everything without explaining anything well.

(Heretic by Prof. Matti Leisola.  (Seattle, Discovery Institute Press, 2018), p. 198)

 

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Tim Peake and the folly of wonder

It is almost like that opening scene in Terry Gilliam’s film, Brazil.  Where the thought police blast a hole through the ceiling of an entirely innocent family, bag the husband up, and drag him away, never to be seen again.  In that dystopian vision, the culprit was a cockroach causing an office printer to malfunction – here, it was Tim Peake’s misplaced sense of wonder about the sheer, jaw-dropping splendour of the earth below him, as he hung in orbit.  Better keep such utterances to yourself – I listened to his comment (during a TV interview) about the mere possibility of a divine creator of the universe, one which he immediately covered over with skeptical caveats, and winced.  “Brace yourself, Tim”, I thought.  This was one of those “I mentioned the war, but I think I got away with it” moments.  Except he didn’t.

For there are those who apparently cannot even tolerate such an understated, tentatively-expressed thought, when articulated so inoffensively by the nation’s favourite astronaut.  Robin McKie is one of them, although in his latest Guardian Opinion piece, be betrays little evidence of either ‘science’ or ‘editing’ in his feature.  No doubt, the irritation in this case is because the atheistical left cannot, with any credibility, emit their usual howls of outrage, drawing on their established patois of ‘ignorant superstition’ and ‘religious bigotry’ as justification.  Within a few paragraphs, Mr McKie is laying into God’s apparently bungled design of the human eye, whereas poor old Tim Peake hadn’t really progressed beyond briefly wondering if there might, after all, be something behind all of this wondrousness.  Yes, better bring him right back down to earth, and remind him just how rubbish everything actually is.  After all (a la Richard Dawkins), if creation looks as if it is pretty special,  that must be some kind of illusion, brought about by blind, purposeless forces.  In the long run, it’s all just landfill, so you’d better get used to it, Tim, and not wax lyrical with those hifalutin thoughts of yours.

I live in hope that, one day, we’re going to decide we’ve had enough of this patronising, dumbed-down atheism, because it assumes that its audience are all idiots.  For Mr McKie is performing the usual alchemy, when constructing his polemic – we leap, with all the balletic grace of an airborne hippo, from ‘intelligent design’ straight to ‘creationism’ in the very next line.  The one does not need to lead to the other – one of my favourite I.D. thinkers could certainly not be accused of the heinous crime of religiosity, and there are no doubt plenty of people who accept the fundamental idea of God as creator, without feeling a need to look into I.D.  And, perhaps it’s almost too obvious to point out, but what we get in this polemic, is something that looks suspiciously like a kind of statement of faith:

In fact, the evolution of the human eye was a basic business.  It evolved from simpler versions that in turn evolved from even simpler eyes that in turn evolved from basic light sensors.

Yep.  Right.  In fact, the very first optical devices appeared in the Cambrian Explosion – and included reflectors, lenses and cornea, and presumably all of that neural malarkey to make use of them.    Nearly every eye design that exists today appeared overnight in geological terms, as fully complete as such optical systems would need to be, to perform their purpose.

Not that we needed to even go there.  Allowing Tim Peake his moment of wonder would hardly endanger the atheistical stranglehold of the nation’s psyche, and might even have been suggestive of qualities such as tolerance and grace.  We could all do with a little more wonder in our lives.

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The Good Pagan

I have a first edition of Rosalind Murray’s 1939 work, The Good Pagan’s Failure.  The author is perhaps better known for her fiction – The Happy Tree is still published by Persephone Books under their iconic design.

Born in 1890 and brought up within the left-leaning ‘pagan’ humanism and Fabianism of George Bernard Shaw and Bertrand Russell, she died in 1967 a convinced Christian, having converted to Roman Catholicism.  Liberal Anglicanism held little attraction for her, for its values and intellectual coherence were about as insubstantial as that of the secular humanism that she became disillusioned with.  Naturalism with vestments is still paganism in a posh frock.

Murray’s book is not one that sits easily with the contemporary style.  Running to 176 pages, it consists of only three chapters and there is no introduction, nor is there an index.  It therefore takes the form of an extended discourse which one has to navigate with some care in order to follow her logic.  There are frequent references to ‘the last war’, and one has to forcibly remind oneself that she is thinking of WW1 – the book is published on the eve of the declaration of war against Hitler’s Germany.  Nevertheless, her description of the prevailing mindset seems apposite:

The contemporary world is atomic in its outlook; dissociated ideas, emotions, sense impressions, are almost deliberately cultivated at the expense of continuous or long-distance considerations; cause and effect, dependence and relation are at a discount, and to the atomic mind, the realisation of such underlying unity is alien and distasteful.

You can see how such a fragmented world has little in reserve to deal with the kind of periodic upsurge of barbarism (a frequent theme in this book) which was about to consume Europe.  And her words ring true in our current climate where human identity is sliced and diced in increasingly surreal and self-contradictory ways, without reference to any kind of coherent bigger picture, merely subject to the imperious demands of paganism.

Murray is clear about her own journey:

Born and brought up among enlightened Pagans, their outlook, and their standards and their values, are those which I first knew, by which I was educated; the Pagan world of limited perfection was that familiar to me, as I grew up.

In maturity I have found enlightened Paganism inadequate to explain life as I see it, inadequate to deal with it as I find it.  The picture presented to me in youth has proved, so it seems to me, a misleading picture, the account of existence offered, a false account; the key with which I was furnished, unlocks no door.

I have found that the Christian world-picture, world-story, explanation, does fit the world that I know and have to live in; the alternative key has, for me, unlocked the door.

Murray is not one who looks back on some kind of mythical ‘golden age’ of Christendom, as if that alone is the ‘proof’ of the failure of enlightened Paganism.  Her view of the characteristics of successive cultures is very far from being idealistic, but she does understand very clearly that the Rationalistic appropriation of Christian ethics has formed one strand of a long-playing dynamic which allows both fascist and communist to play in the same ballpark, and lay claim to a similar terminology.  It is possible to ‘blow’ a bird’s egg whilst leaving only the tiniest pin-prick behind as evidence.  In an age utterly content with the surface appearance of things, the arguments, such as they are allowed to be, play out with little reference to a deeper reality, or the bigger, overarching picture.

In some respects, however, Rosalind Murray is an echo of a lost age.  Whilst her intention is to confront and critique the secular humanism of her youth, and thereby demonstrate its inadequacy as a system of thought, she does so in a remarkably kind and genteel manner.  Her language is marked throughout by economy and understatement.  One senses that she would not survive for long in a culture dominated by the summary brutality of social media, or the proliferation of ‘rights’ activists, each driven by a kind of Neo-darwinian imperative to survive through the demise of others.

Ironically, perhaps, Murray’s best-known work of fiction is still available through a publisher which embodies the very ‘good pagan’ worldview that she saw right through and left behind.

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A Most Welcome Visitation

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As Brendan O’Neill recently wrote, our streets have for the last few days been congested in a paroxysm of “mass virtue-signalling”.  The media interviews with participating members of the public are testimony to our liberal education system, judging by the sheer breadth of inarticulate incomprehension on display.  No doubt there’s plenty to dislike about Trump, but we have uncritically welcomed others with far worse crimes under their belts.  It seems that ideology breeds its own kind of myopia.

Thankfully, other American guests slipped into Blighty without requiring the suspension of blimps over the London skyline, and Dr. Craig Hazen from Biola University was a very welcome guest speaker at a hastily-convened evening at Highfields Church on July 7th.  We only had a week’s notice but even so, around fifty folks from churches around Cardiff were able to enjoy Craig’s entertaining and engaging take on comparative religion, as well as the insights derived from his own direct experience of the now lamentably degraded discourse within the USA’s most aggressively secular universities.

Christian Apologetics, as a discipline, is one that engages some folks, but puts others off.  The primary reason for the latter is often the sheer degree of technical detail.  Craig managed to avoid that pitfall entirely, by panning back and focusing on key principles and exploring the kind of logic which ought to bear fruit if open-minded agnostics were seeking to explore spirituality for themselves.  He showed that Christianity:

  1. Is uniquely testable, unlike other mainstream religious or philosophical systems which float free of the kind of evidence which might help you assess their veracity;
  2. Involves a free gift from God – so no complicated rituals, no sitting around in lotus positions, no painful asceticism;
  3. Provides a picture of the world which correlates precisely with what it actually is – no need, for instance, to attempt to dispense with the problem of evil and suffering by labelling it ‘maya’ and pretending that it does not really exist;
  4. Has Jesus right at the centre of it – most other religions wants a piece of Him in some way or another, but within the Christian Gospel is where you heard it all first.

In my last blogpost, I wrote about how the atheist, John Gray, comes to exactly the same conclusion as Craig – namely that Christianity is unlike any other ‘religious’ belief system because it is uniquely testable.  In my next blog, I’ll explore how Gray both giveth and taketh away, where his own appeal to selected authorities effectively denies the open-minded enquirer the means to engage with the claims of Christ, as Craig presented them to us last week.

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