Category Archives: Darwin

Christmas gift ideas: One for the kids

Books are ideal Christmas presents. And as I am spending some time dealing with family business I thought reposting some of my past book reviews over the next few days could be useful am repeating some of my past book reviews.

I should have reviewed more books for children. But here’s a good one – about an important scientific topic.


Book Review: Evolution: How We and All Living Things Came to Be by Daniel Loxton

Reading level: Young Adult
Price: US$12.89, NZ$40.99
Hardcover: 56 pages
Publisher: Kids Can Press, Ltd. (February 1, 2010)
ISBN-10: 1554534305
ISBN-13: 978-1554534302

Today, February 12, is Darwin Day. The anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth 201 years ago. So I have decided to review a new book on evolution.

It’s a short book, but an important one. Important because it’s for kids – it’s aimed at children of ages 8 – 13. It’s about an important area of science, evolutionary science. I think kids will learn from this book, and they will enjoy the experience.

“Evolution” is beautifully illustrated and clearly written. Important evolutionary ideas are well explained in brief sections, often illustrated with examples and metaphors as well as pictures. Daniel Loxton is the editor of Junior Skeptic and regularly writes and illustrates for children so he is the ideal author for such a book.

I like the way that many of these sections use questions as chapter headings. “What about us?”, “Survival of the fittest?”, “If evolution really happens, where are the transitional fossil?”, “How could evolution produce something as complicated as my eyes?” are a few examples. The sorts of questions kids will commonly hear. Loxton devotes the second part of his book to such questions, ones commonly raised by creationist critics of evolution. This is good technique for capturing the reader’s attention and encouraging them to read further.

Loxton uses many examples and metaphors, as well as pictures, to illustrate ideas. His illustration of mutations acting over time with the metaphor of the children’s’ game “telephone” is done in both words and pictures.

My main criticism is that he didn’t use a metaphor to illustrate the important idea of “deep time.” A simple description of rock layers and differentiation of fossils is inadequate – even for an adult. One needs to compare the immensity of time with something pictorial, like the distance between people, houses, cities, countries, planets, and so on. An illustration of the process of fossilisation could also have helped.

However, kids of this age are continuously learning. They are always confronting ideas and words needing further explanation. So I think it is great that this book includes a short glossary (which does include a description of fossilisation) and index. This helps encourage the young reader to explore further – especially when they come across unfamiliar words.

The religion question

Several reviewers have expressed reservations about Loxton’s short answer to the question “What about religion?” Perhaps it would have been better to leave this out – but on the other hand it is a common question which kids will have to confront. Loxton’s inadequate reply was unavoidable, given the unwritten social rule that religion has a special role in our society. That we are not allowed to criticise religion. Any properly adequate reply would have lead to people being “offended” and campaigns to exclude the book for schools.

So perhaps the best advice is that he gave – kids should discuss this with family and friends. I think there are many things in this book which will raise further questions in the reader’s minds. Maybe it’s religion, the way fossils are formed, how life began, the age of the earth or universe. If this leads to discussions with family, friends and teachers – great. It’s all part of education.

So, I can highly recommend this book. It will be a great gift for the target age group – but even some of us older “kids” could probably learn from this short clearly written and beautifully illustrated book.

That’s my opinion. Now I must pass it on to my 9 year-old granddaughter and get her reaction.

See also:
Evolution: How we and al living things came to be – available from Fishpond.co.nz.
forgoodreason Interview with Loxton about the book
Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe Interviews Daniel loxton
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Moral strawmannery

If you have ever searched the internet for a section of text from Darwin’s writings you will have noticed that most of the links that come up are to creationist websites and blogs. What we are seeing is simple dishonest quote mining. Somebody makes a claim about evolution, Darwin or Darwinism, attaches a mined quote – and the quote then has a life of its own. It gets repeated ad nauseum by the creationist echo chamber – with hardly any of the users bothering to check the quote against the original for accuracy – let alone context.

Mining quotes from Darwin

Here’s one taken from Darwin’s The Descent of Man.  It’s from Chapter IV: Comparison of the mental powers of man and the lower animals. In this Darwin discusses the evolution of a moral sense, sociability, social instincts and virtues, rules of conduct and religious beliefs. After arguing against the idea that a different social animal “if its intellectual faculties were to become as active and as highly developed as in man, would acquire exactly the same moral sense as ours” Darwin wrote:

“If, for instance, to take an extreme case, men were reared under precisely the same conditions as hive-bees, there can hardly be a doubt that our unmarried females would, like the worker-bees, think it a sacred duty to kill their brothers, and mothers would strive to kill their fertile daughters; and no one would think of interfering.” (Bold added)

Recently I have seen the quote reproduced by numerous religious apologists and creationists arguing against “secular morality.” (Almost always the section in bold is omitted – usually evidence that users are just copying and pasting from other apologist posts or articles). And they interpret this to mean that a moral and social code held by a human species that has evolved must be the same as the most basic of animals or insects.

See, for example Flannagan’s When Scientists Make Bad Ethicists and Weikhart’s Can Darwinists Condemn Hitler and Remain Consistent with Their Darwinism?  Flannagan asserts:

“it is unlikely that a loving and just person could command actions such as infanticide or rape whereas, evolution, guided only by the impersonal forces of nature, is not subject to such constraints.”

Weikart has made a reputation of ascribing the morality of Nazism to Darwin (he is the author of From Darwin to Hitler: Evolutionary Ethics, Eugenics, and Racism in Germany and Hitler’s Ethic: The Nazi Pursuit of Evolutionary Progress). He says:

“if morality is the product of these mindless evolutionary processes, as Darwin and many other prominent Darwinists maintain, then “I don’t think [they] have any grounds to criticize Hitler.””

And

“To natural selection killing your siblings and offspring is all the same as loving them. Selection only favors what works to enhance survival and reproduction, and it does not matter if it is nice and moral, or harsh and brutal.”

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How We Know What’s Really True

Book Review: The Magic of Reality: How We Know What’s Really True by Richard Dawkins. Illustrated by Dave McKean

Price: US$16.49; NZ$37.50;
iPad app US$13.99, NZ17.99.
Audio vers. US$ 19.79.

Hardcover: 272 pages
Publisher: Free Press (October 4, 2011)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1439192812
ISBN-13: 978-1439192818

I have posted on this book before (see A reminder of reality’s magic). It’s now available in New Zealand so a review is in order. Fortunately I have had an audio version of the book for a week, have listened to it all and am happy to recommend it. I can especially confirm my earlier recommendation as a sciency book for young people – perhaps a Christmas present.

Richard Dawkins himself says he aimed the book at young people from 12 years old to 100 years old. Younger children may also enjoy it, especially with parental help.

Each of the book’s twelve  chapters are built around a question – the sort of questions young and other inquisitive people ask. “Who was the first person?”, “What is a rainbow?”, “What is the sun?”, “What is reality? What is magic?”, “When and how did everything begin?”, “Why do bad things happen?” “What is a miracle?” and so on.

Most chapters start with the traditional or mythological answers. Some of those will not be new, coming from our own tradition or religion. New Zealanders will recognise a number of Maori or Christian myths. Others will be new, refreshing, intriguing, or even plain silly from our point of view. But, of course, there is no reason to suppose any mythological tradition is any more correct, or of any more value, than another. This helps develop a rational perspective.

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Evolution and education – advice for teachers

Creationists have far less influence in New Zealand than they do in the US. Still, quite a large proportion of Christians here do not accept evolutionary science. So, I imagine, their wish to undermine the teaching of evolutionary science sometimes becomes an issue, for some teachers.

Here’s a couple of videos prepared by the US National Center for Science Education (NCSE) which does a great job in the US. They are of a talk given by NCSE programs and policy director Steve Newton to an audience of high school teachers from across the US.

Steve covers questions like:

  • What challenges do biology teachers face from creationists?
  • How do you respond to students asking the “10 questions”?
  • What are the different flavors of creationist belief?
  • And other issues.

Teaching evolution in a climate of science denial, Part 1.

Part 2: Teaching evolution in a climate of science denial, Part 2.

See also: NCSE YouTube Channel

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Some things for the kids

Well actually for their parents and grandparents. Especially with Christmas on the horizon.

Right where you are now

Right Here You Are Now is a bedtime story for kids. It’s also scientifically accurate, so it’s more than just a bedtime story—it’s an educational adventure. This book will help kids understand geologic time. Seems pretty important to me.

This is how Tracy Reva describes the book in her review:

“While this book contains a lot of information it’s presented in a very appealing manner that will make children want to read it. The pages are bright and colorful, and the illustrations make children wonder what comes next. The facts are presented in a manner that encourages the curiosity of young readers and the passages of reading material are short ones. The book itself is 26 pages and it packs a lot of interesting facts into each and every page. I am so impressed with it I plan to buy a couple of copies to use as presents for my grandson, niece and nephews.”

See also: review by review by Lavanya Karthik

The book will be launched in the UK on 25 September.

Register here to be informed when the book is released and can be purchased.

Thanks to The Dispersal of Darwin

Charlie and the kiwi

Charlie and Kiwi: An Evolutionary Adventure is another book aimed at young children (4 – 8 yrs). And it has a local theme which will appeal.

It was supported by a grant from the US National Science Foundation, so again it will be scientifically accurate. It uses Charles Darwin to take the reader on a journal through time and through the important scientific principle of evolution.

Published last June it is available now.

Again thanks to The Dispersal of Darwin

Skeptics dictionary for kids

The Skeptic’s Dictionary for Kids is a web site – and obviously for the older kids. great for research, school projects and just searching.

This was set up in July and is being continually added to. The web page also has some interesting links which will be useful for kids interested in science.

And links to some kid’s sciency books:

Thanks to Phil Plait, The Bad Astronomer.

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A silver lining to Expelled?

Readers are probably aware of the nasty little creationist/intelligent design film Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed. Despite all the fanfare suggesting it was coming to a church hall or basement near you sometime soon it seemed to drop out of existence.

Perhaps that is why the company that produced the film has gone bankrupt. And the film itself, together with its assets, is to be auctioned off any day now.

I thought that would be the end of the sorry little affair. But no – there may be a silver lining – depending on who the final buyers are.

PZ Myers reports that Talk Origins, the people from Panda’s Thumb, are making a bid to buy it. That seems weird.

But think about it. Expelled misrepresented some important people like Myers, Richard Dawkins, Eugenie Scott, Michael Shermer and so on. These people were interviewed extensively on evolutionary science, science in general and intelligent design. However, only short clips, heavily edited to produce a misleading impression, were included in the film.

Expelled – The Uncut Interviews

So if Talk Origins wins the bidding they will have access to the full interviews. As Talk Origins suggests:

“The auction promises that besides all available rights and interests in the finished film itself (there is an existing distribution contract), the winner will get all the production materials and rights to them. Want to know what was in the rest of the interviews with Richard Dawkins and PZ Myers? I know I would like to have that material archived and made available to the public, among other things that Premise Media found inconvenient to include in their film.”

Anyone who has watched the uncut interviews available from the Richard Dawkins Foundation will appreciate the possibilities. These are interviews used initially to produce BBC films documentaries like The Root of All Evil?, The Enemies of Reason , The Genius of Charles Darwin and others.

So I look forward to a new series of documentaries – Expelled – The Uncut Interviews. Just imagine, not only will we get an interesting and extensive interview of each person (Myers says his interview last 3 hours!). But as an extra, if the clip used in the film is also included we will get to see examples of how creationists quote mine scientists.

Thanks to PZ Myers: I think the creationists would rather just forget about Expelled.

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Designer spin

The absolute gall of some of those who attack science often amazes me. I guess their attitude is that if they are in for a penny they may as well be in  for a pound. Once someone starts lying its very hard to stop. The lies just get worse.

But this headline at Uncommon Descent had me laughing –  Darwinism’s Eroding Monopoly In Academia. Especially when I saw their “evidence” – a quote from a Times Education Supplement (TES) article:

“One in 20 first-year biology students at Glasgow University don’t believe in the theory of evolution, according to new research.”

Really! Just 5% of first year students at Glasgow University admit to not believing in evolutionary science – and this is news! It’s suddenly “evidence” that “Darwinism” is losing its near universal acceptance in academia!

And, according to the TES article:

“When asked why they rejected evolution, 41 per cent [of the 5%] said they believed there was an alternative explanation for the diversity of life, while a third [of the 5%] said they simply had insufficient knowledge of evolution.”

So this means that 2% of these first year students “believed there was an alternative explanation for the diversity of life.” Those are the anti-Darwin believers who are eroding “Darwinism” in academia. Two percent! And a similar number just admitted their ignorance (always a good start).

Given that religious attitudes are still very common in Scotland and a significant proportion of Christians actually do reject evolutionary science, I am surprised that such a small proportion of these students admitted to not believing in evolutionary science.

Come on! Only Five percent (5%) of these first year students said they did not believe in evolution. Just imagine how much smaller that percentage will be on graduation!

And these intelligent design (ID) spin merchants claim this is evidence for “Darwinism’s Eroding Monopoly In Academia”!

In the same vein of dishonesty another ID spokesperson referred to the TES article quoting Alastair Noble, director of the Centre for Intelligent Design. He said intelligent design – unlike evolution, was “a non-dogmatic, non-religious position.” (see Intelligent Design on the Rise Among Scottish University Students?)

Funny how these people attempt to label science as religious and deny that their own positions are based on their own religious beliefs.  Noble is an Educational Consultant with CARE in Scotland – a Christian charity which works across a range of public policy issues. He is also a lay preacher, an elder at Cartsbridge Evangelical Church, Busby.

With such silly spin in their political claims can one take these people seriously for their scientific claims?

Answer – you can’t.

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Acceptance of science – dangerous for some

In the UK The Independent is reporting that a Muslim scientist is being threatened for his acceptance of evolutionary science (see Scientist Imam threatened over Darwinist views). The scientist is Dr Usama Hasan, a physics lecturer at Middlesex University and a fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society. His “crime” – he delivered a a lecture on “Islam and the theory of evolution” at his East London mosque, Masjid al-Tawhid.

Dr Usama Hasan, a physics lecturer, has received death threats from extremists - Credit The Independent

His lecture was disrupted by fanatics who distributed leaflets claiming that “Darwin is blasphemy”. Dr Hasan told The Independent: “One man came up to me during the lecture and said ‘You are an apostate and should be killed’” .

Hasan has now been forced to retract his claim that evolutionary science is compatible with Islam. His father has also issued a statement to the mosque saying: “”I seek Allah’s forgiveness for my mistakes and apologise for any offence caused.” And his family has urged him not to return to the mosque, where he is a prominent imam, because of their concern for his safety.

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A hymn for Darwin Day

This little hymn brings back memories and seems quite appropriate with Darwin Day (February 12) coming up.

I remember very little from my Sunday school education. But three memories I have from the Salvation army Sunday School I attended are:

  1. Being told that in heaven the streets were paved with gold!
  2. Singing “Jesus wants me for a sunbeam!”, and
  3. Singing “All things bright and beautiful.”

Of course the last hymn has been sung by experts – Monty Python comes to mind.

But here is the latest I picked up by Ben Hillman.

Thanks also to RichardDawkins.net. 

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“Other ways of knowing” – some sense at last

There’s been a lot of rubbish written about “other ways of knowing”. So it’s quite refreshing to read Richard Carrier’s classification of methods of knowing. This is from his book Sense and Goodness Without God: A Defense of Metaphysical Naturalism. Well worthy reading by the way.

He starts by pointing out that no method of obtaining knowledge can produce absolute certainty. We can always be wrong, make mistakes. But we can list possible methods in order of reliability:

What is rational is to assign degrees of conviction to degrees of certainty established by a tried-and-tested method. What is rational is reasonable certainty, not absolute certainty.”

The methods of logic and mathematics are well-developed and provide the greatest certainty we have yet been able to find regarding anything, other than a present, uninterpreted experience. The next greatest certainty has been found in the application of scientific methods to empirical problems. In third place is our own daily experience, when interpreted with a logical or scientific mindset. Fourth is the application of critical-historical methods to claims about past events. Fifth is the application of the criteria of trust to the claims of experts. Sixth is the untested but logical application of inferential generalizations from incomplete facts—that is, plausible deductions. Such is the scale of methods that we have historically been able to discover and confirm as effective.”

“Experience shows that our degree of certainty will generally be weaker with regard to facts at each stage down this six-rung ladder, though within each category lies its own continuum of certainty and uncertainty, and the ladder itself is a continuum of precision and access to information: the more data we have to ground our conclusions, the farther up the ladder we find ourselves. Thus, mathematics is just perfected science; science, perfected experience; experience, perfected history; and history, perfected attention to experts; while plausible inference is what we are left with when we have none of those things.”

“Lacking any of the above approaches to the truth, we are faced with untrustworthy hearsay and pure speculation, where only the feeblest of certainty can ever be justified, if at all.”

Carrier writes that accurate methods of knowing have the properties of predictive success and convergent accumulation of consistent results.  However, these should be evaluated intelligently. Even the best method may produce faulty knowledge if used incorrectly.

So how do the different methods rate?:

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