Tag Archives: evolution

Book Review: The Blind Watchmaker by Richard Dawkins

Having read The Selfish Gene and The Extended Phenotype, I wanted to carry on reading Dawkins’ earlier works, as I have found him to be a great communicator when it comes to his specialist field of evolutionary biology. Such writing is rare and ought to be highly valued, though I fear that his later writings on religion have done his reputation more harm than good. But even though there is a sprinkling of thoughts on religion here, including in the opening premise, this is a book of science, not one of anti-religion. So let us delight in this master’s work and dive in.

The title of the book, if one weren’t aware already, is derived from William Paley’s work on natural theology, where he infers from his observations of nature that there must have been a grand designer behind it all, namely God. Dawkins’ aim is to rebuff the particular argument that Paley made. In taking this approach, Dawkins does not dismiss Paley as a fool, but in fact pays credit to him. Yet there is also an implicit understanding that Paley’s view is the peak of natural theology when it comes to biological design.

I emphasise biological design for one should be careful not to think of Dawkins’ work applying to a wider scope than is justified. For this remains a book primarily of biology. There is a bit of computer programming, along with some analogies with physics and history, but these are not what The Blind Watchmaker is primarily about. In fact, after the opening, Paley’s views seem to fade somewhat into the background, as Dawkins gets into his evolutionary stride. For while Dawkins states that he plans to counter the inferences Paley makes, the bulk of the book is stated far more positively, giving us insights into evolutionary biology, some of which Dawkins has used before in The Selfish Gene and The Extended Phenotype.

The counter to Paley is done fairly on and with some deftness. The heart of it is to dispel the idea that evolution is random. This can be used a good shibboleth to determine if anyone had reasonably understood evolution: if they insist that evolution is an entirely random process, then you can determine that they do not understand it. Rather, it is a sequential process. The image that came to my mind was a combination lock. If there are 5 cogs, each with 10 settings, then there 100,000 possible combinations. You might then argue (as Paley) that to find the right combination is phenomenally unlikely and therefore there must be another factor at play. But what Dawkins notes is that randomness only applies at any one cog, not on all 5 simultaneously. So have a 1 in 10 chance of getting the first cog right. Once that is in place, then we can look at the 2nd cog. If you work this way, then the probability against ending up at the final answer is substantially reduced from 100,000 to 1 down to 50 to 1. Dawkins makes reference to the fact that he wrote another book, Climbing Mount Improbable, at around the same time as The Blind Watchmaker and recommends it as a companion piece.

There’s a wonderful section on the varieties and evolution of echolocation. One of the reasons it stayed with me is because it coincided with a DVD I was watching at the time (David Attenborough’s ‘The Trials of Life’). From bats to dolphins, we can see a variety of different forms, some of which are better than others. As well as providing a fascinating insight into the natural world, it shows that evolution doesn’t have an end goal (and why the combination lock analogy isn’t perfect) but there are hints here of convergent evolution; an area that isn’t emphasised in this work.

The book takes a bit of a diversion away from biology and into computer programming. This is the one part of the book that hasn’t aged well. In it, Dawkins reveals his devotion to Apple computers and shows the result of a programme he used to create shapes that were randomly generated, but where he imposed conditions on them (to mimic evolutionary selective pressures) and shows how they resemble certain objects, many of them biological. What we get is what, as a maths student, I used to refer to as ‘proof by pretty pictures’. For while it is interesting, it lacks the rigour that would be necessary for a more serious scientific work, and is too far removed from the fieldwork of biological study to be of much use.

By now, Dawkins has moved a long way from his starting point of apparent design and is going through some of the finer points of evolutionary biology. He comes onto the subject of punctuated equilibrium (PE). Foremost in his crosshairs is Stephen Jay Gould, a writer who I must admit I have thus far unduly neglected; a copy of The Panda’s Thumb sits on my living room floor, waiting to be read. Gould was famously an advocate of PE. Dawkins, in his opposition to Gould, does not actually go so far as to deny the theory of PE, but instead wishes to attack the way PE advocates portray other evolutionary biologists. Dawkins comes up with an interesting analogy: that of the Israelites traipsing through the desert for 40 years. I found it interesting as it betrays his curious obsession with matters of a religious nature that were to later consume him. Dawkins states that PE advocates portray non-PE advocates as thinking the Israelites maintained a steady, but deathly slow, speed throughout their 40 year sojourn.

Yes, you did read that last sentence correctly. It all gets very accusative and, to a non biologist like me, rather pointless. To the outside observer it appears like a pointless quibbling over the finer points of language, rather than any fundamental difference in the biology. That said, I am aware how, within christianity, differences between different denominations can appear equally pointless to the casual outside observer. As an example, I might cite the infant baptism as an example where those who advocate it and those who oppose it (I am firmly in the latter camp) use it as a way of expressing their differences over what the nature of baptism is. But I digress…

The last significant section of the book goes into even more obscurantist territory where Dawkins takes on a group known as the “reformed cladists”. It’s not a term this reader was familiar with; I doubt many non-biologists would be. As I finish this review a few weeks on from having finished the book, I struggle to think back. My interest had thoroughly waned and I was more keen ‘to have finished’ the book than I was ‘to finish’ the book, if you understand my meaning.

My conclusion therefore is that what starts as a brilliant piece on evolutionary biology, defending good science against poor theology, gets a bit sidetracked by computer programming and eventually fades into denominational name-calling and put-downs. It’s a terrible shame, because it is really a rather good book. So please do absolutely read it, but if you find yourself putting it down about three-quarters of the way in, I will forgive you if you heave a deep sigh before picking it up again to finish it.

Book Review: Creation by Adam Rutherford

I first came across Adam’s book whilst listening a radio show when he was promoting it and for some reason agreed to a debate with a creationist (if you are so inclined, you can listen to the discussion here). I’ve been familiar with some of Adam’s work with the Guardian newspaper for a number of years, though this is the first book of his that I’ve actually read. It has to be noted that there are really two books here in one, though I choose to review them here together. The big trick the publishers pulled was to not put the two parts consecutively, but to flip one upside down and then putting them back-to-back. So you end up reading from front to centre, then turning the book round and doing the same again. The upshot of this is that, reading on public transport as I do, people kept giving me funny looks as they thought I was reading upside down.

The Origin of Life

The name kind of says it all. Only it doesn’t. Before we get to the origin of life, we first need a bit of preparation. This is ultimately the story of the history of life. But it is a story told in reverse, with the culmination being the story of the very beginning of life. So we begin not at the dawn of time but with a discourse on a very modern understanding of cell biology. This is something of an overview, familiar to many, but necessary if one is to locate the rest of this half of the book (and indeed the other half) in its rightful place.

So we get a very quick rundown on our understanding of evolution which runs broadly along the lines of many an account you will probably have read. As he’s a biologist, Adam does rather overplay the importance of Darwin in the history of science, rolling out the line (which I doubt is original to him) that evolution was the single greatest idea that anyone had. As a physics-inclined mathematician, I would have no qualms with saying that Darwin was a great scientist, but I would only rank him alongside, not above, the likes of Copernicus, Gauss, al-Khwarizmi, Linnaeus, Mendeleev, Newton and Riemann. Back to the book…

What is life? It’s a necessary question and one that is deserving of a discussion. Adam recaps some of the definitions we should all be familiar with from our school days. Yet it certainly differed a bit from my school as I had always understood that while there was no set definition, viruses were a considerably grey area. Interestingly, though they are pretty much looked over here, they do appear in The Future of Life (see below). The answer arrived is runs along the lines of, “[we may not be able to pin it down, but we know it when we see it]” which makes for an interesting viewpoint given how the rest of the first half of the book develops, as the origin of life looks considerably different from what we would commonly recognise today.

From here we hone in on DNA as being the signature of life, but Adam presses further to suggest that RNA is probably a much older form. This not an unusual idea, but the non-scientifically trained reader may start to go a little cross-eyed at this point. So while Adam does a very good job of presenting his subject in accessible way, the topic at hand is intrinsically a bit tough.

We then get a look at the more basic components of life before finally getting to the question in hand: how did life begin? The answer is, of course, we don’t know. What we have a series of possible answers and Adam gives us his view on some of these. The view he advocates is that the building blocks developed simultaneously rather than sequentially. These combined to create RNA which was then subject to what we would now call a process of Darwinian evolution. He goes into more detail than I have space for here, talking of experiments which show that this is a possible route.

Yet saying ‘it is possible’ is about as far as one can go. Adam looks at a few other hypotheses, such as the “warm little pool” and panspermia (the idea that life arrived on a comet or meteorite). It’s interesting, particularly with regards to the latter, that Adam is rather dismissive yet he doesn’t apply the same scrutiny to the idea he advocates as he does to the one he rejects. So while both are possible, and both might possibly wrong, the case is not adequately made in this book for why one is preferred over the other.

The Future of Life

So we come to the second part. You can read them independently or in reverse order, but I would be surprised if the majority of readers picked this one first. As has been noted by some other reviewers of this book, this half doesn’t quite have the same great flow to it that the first half did. For some time, I trundled through, thinking it was a bit hodge-podge with Adam just looking at bits that, while interesting, didn’t give an overall narrative as he had done with the origin of life.

Part of this is the newness of it all. Much of the science he describes has only been pioneered in the last 10 years or so, long after I ended any formal education in biology. So Adam describes an area of science that is very much in its infancy but which has already come on leaps and bounds in its short lifetime. Though he rightly points out that genetic engineering is really what nature does anyway, and which Gregor Mendel did with his pea plants in the 19th century. It’s that our capabilities to manipulate genetic code is now much more direct, made possible through other forms of engineering, and so enabling the kinds of experiments that Adam describes.

It was in this section that Adam makes reference to the ‘immortal’ HeLa cell, which is named after Henrietta Lacks, the woman from whom the cell was taken and who is the subject of the book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot, which is next on my list of science books to read. So hopefully, I’ll get through it before Christmas.

When considering the future of bioengineering, one name should instantly spring to mind to anyone who follows science: Craig Venter. To some he is a hero, to others a villain. He competed with Francis Collins (who is curiously not mentioned by Adam) to be the first to map the human genome project. Collins did this on a not-for-profit basis, but Venter is very much on the side of profiteering from biological research, to the extent of trying to patent genes. Adam goes into some discussion of exactly what patents and copyrights have been applied for, with a level of critique in his writing, though he doesn’t quite go so far to as advocate the public availability of all research. But he does go someway in this direction.

At this point, I probably ought to add a disclaimer that the company I work for publishes a considerable number of books and journals in scientific research, some of which Adam may subscribe to or own. So I acknowledge that the profits made from these publications contribute to my salary. One of the issues the company is facing is the increasing demand for open access journals and how to meet the demand without the profit margins being pushed into decline.

Adam is, unsurprisingly, an advocate of the trials of GM crops. He gives us a potted history of the anti-GM movement which has an interesting link over to one of my former hangouts, the Rothamstead Experimental Station in Hertfordshire. Some may take issue with the way he tells the story, with Adam being resolutely pro-science whilst advocating reasonable safeguards. Having recently read Silent Spring I wonder what Rachel Carson might have made of the modern progress made in GM crops.

There is no real neat ending here, as this is very much a fledgling science. Adam presents us with some possibilities, but I would not be surprised if we look back at this in 25 years’ time and find that the field has developed in ways that are unexpected or have gone down different routes from the early sketch that we are given here.

So in conclusion, this is a very good book written about a fairly tough subject. It is not the most abstruse topic for those who are reasonably scientifically literate, but for those who specialise more in the arts then this may prove tough. But I would struggle to find a better book to recommend on the most modern advances in biology. Told with good humour and in a lively style, Adam remains a gifted communicator and I look forward to any future publications he may author.

Defined by opposition

Some people seem to be having an identity crisis of late. Far more words than necessary have been spilled over whether or not Britain is a “Christian” country – a debate whose only endpoint seems to be applying an adjective to a collective group of some 63m or so people in the hope of electorally appealing to the proportion of those that identify as such.

The prime minister’s comments, coming after talking about his faith but before calling the police when the bishop of Oxford came to visit, prompted the utterly predictable backlash from the British Humanist Association (BHA). Beyond the futile question as it stands, the debate (if you can call it that) is symptomatic of a wider issue of how we define ourselves either as individuals, communities or societies.

One thing I have begun to notice of late is how we often define ourselves in terms of what we are not. I’ve been known to do it myself sometimes. It seems as though it is easier to express ourselves via some means of negation than it is of affirmation. Or at least, if there is some affirmation is quickly followed by a clarification which is expressed by negation. In other words, saying, “I’m X. But by X, I don’t mean Y” where Y might be confused or conflated with X, or may be thought to be some sort of subgroup of X.

In the case of the BHA it may (rightly) be saying we are not explicitly a christian country but without offering any kind of positive alternative.

I might wonder if there is some kind of Popperian sense of falsification going on in some of our heads. To take the work of one of the signatories, Richard Dawkins, for example, in The Extended Phenotype he was very keen to repeatedly point out that his formulation of evolution was not Lamarckian. Here, he provides good evidence which seems to go some way to falsifying the position he is countering. Though in so doing, one must be careful to fairly and accurately portray what one might be defined against, or else fall prey to the straw man fallacy (not that I am suggesting that Dawkins did this in The Extended Phenotype).

I might guess that our tendency to be drawn to the straw man is because it is easier to look to another and say that we are not like them rather than articulate a positive statement about what it is we believe and stand for. And it is, I would posit, easier to besmirch  a view we disagree with it and be loose in doing so than to put forward a tightly argued proposition of our own.

Apart from intellectual laziness, one of the dangers is potentially to throw the baby out with the bathwater. To take an example, I know a lot of people for whom the term ‘Calvinism’ is one of the greatest evils in the world. By running as far away from any hint of it, much of the good and right things that Calvin wrote (though I wouldn’t agree with everything he wrote and wouldn’t usually call myself a Calvinist) may be left behind.

If we were to move to another area of interest, I sometimes wonder about particular expressions of atheism. One wonders how such an idea might be articulated if there were not such a thing as theism against which it could lean.

I’m not really making a point here, just musing out some thoughts on a Friday lunchtime. Do  you see others (or even yourself) trying express their identity in terms of what they are not?

Book Review: The Extended Phenotype by Richard Dawkins

Following on from last year’s reading of The Selfish Gene, I decided to carry on reading some of Dawkins’ early works. In fairness, as I admitted when I read The Selfish Gene, there was an extract of The Extended Phenotype which lured me in.

As it turns out the extract was taken from near the back of the book, which is where Dawkins lays out the main thesis. In fact, it seems as though the last quarter constitutes the “real” book, with the rest being preamble as an attempt to lay the foundations and clear up any misunderstandings.

From the introduction, we are given something of a warning. The intended audience for The Extended Phenotype is not the same as that for The Selfish Gene. This volume is not as geared for the lay reader, directed more at the working biologist or the educated student. With regards to biology, I must regard myself as being in the first of those three, though Dawkins does help us out a little by including a glossary at the back which I used with fair frequency.

The opening to the book is a work of genius. He guides the reader to the Necker cube and how, though unchanging, the cube may appear different depending on how you choose to perceive it. Once you see it in a new way, you cannot help but continue to see it that new way, even with the some effort. That is the way that Dawkins wishes us to look at biology. There has been a prevailing viewpoint of viewing the organism as the basic unit at which evolution happens. In his earlier work, he sought to view things from the gene’s “viewpoint” and here he is looking at the extent to which genes have an effect.

So if you don’t recall the different between genotype and phenotype from your GCSE science, you will struggle with the book. I must admit I struggled at a few points, as I never went into study molecular biology in any formal sense. That doesn’t mean it’s impenetrable, but just that that some nuances may not be fully grasped.

As such, I must admit I am tempted to curtail this review, on the admission that though I thought I could grasp the big picture, the details at times eluded me. The only thing more silly than appraising or critiquing an idea you haven’t understood is to do so to an idea you think you’ve understood, but haven’t.

So rather than deal with the subject matter, I will instead make a comment on the writing. Dawkins, as ever, is erudite, lively and at times provocative. Even for a book aimed at the professional scientist, I doubt anyone who was intrigued by it and wanted to read it would find it dull. In dealing with those with whom he disagrees, there are some early signs of irascibility are in evidence here, though they are mostly reserved for his fellow scientists and are nothing compared to the scale of his irrational anti-religious vitriol for which he has been most well known over the last 10 years or so.

The only thing that spoilt the book slightly was the afterword which was written by Daniel Dennett. It is nothing more than a sycophantic review, loaded with gushing praise which, though well-meant, doesn’t add anything the reader’s understanding. One might guess as to whether its inclusion was at the behest of Dawkins or his publishers. The one thing we can pin on Dawkins is that in the foreword, he wrote (in 1989) that if you only read one of his books, this would be the one to read. It would be interesting to find out if he stands by that or if anything he has written subsequently supersedes it.

Please don’t take my demurral from going into the details as a criticism of the book. It is fascinating and I learnt a lot from it. Just consider yourself duly warned that it’s not a light read.

Book Review: Finding Darwin’s God by Kenneth Miller

Almost as a follow up to The Selfish Gene, I wanted to read this for a little bit of balance. It’s been a fair while since I’ve engaged much with the creationism-evolution wars as they can be pretty exasperating. While I favour good science over second-rate rhetoric, some of the pro-science writers I have read come across a little too strident and ungracious. So it was with some trepidation that I approached this book.

The book is quite decidedly broken into two halves. The first 5 chapters are very much focused on biology. This section is a real page turner. Although the proof reader wasn’t up to their job, as there numerous typos throughout, the writing style of the author shines through. Miller gives a stout defence of evolution, building very much on his expertise as a biology professor.

He looks at some of the schools of thought that are opposed to the acceptance of the evidence for evolution and provides a cutting critique into creationism and intelligent design. Along the way, we are given some great examples of how evolution has occurred throughout at the ages, and how the theory has developed, with some interesting pages on Stephen Jay Gould (much missed) and the theory of punctuated equilibrium. Unlike some writers, Miller does not resort to name-calling or insulting those who object to evolution. Instead, he is quite gracious, doesn’t disparage their intelligence and simply shows them why they are mistaken. If this approach were more widely adopted, then I think that much debate on internet message boards and discussion forums would be far more civilised than they are now.

The pertinent question that is then asked by Miller is this: Why does evolution raise the hackles so much? Or rather, why do some choose to become creationists or ID advocates in the face of the evidence in favour of evolution? This marks a sea change in the tone of the book where Miller then steps away from strict biology and veers more into sociological and religious territory. His great expertise in the former is thus contrasted with his lesser expertise in the latter two, which, though interesting, do not make for as good a reading as the first half of the book.

Having drawn out and exposed the fallacy that a correct understanding of evolutionary biology would necessarily entail an atheistic outlook on life, Miller spends the rest of the book giving his reasons for why he thinks that not only is evolution perfectly compatible with a belief in God, but that his understanding of God fits particularly well with evolutionary understanding, rather than being something dissonant which requires a lot of reconciliation.

The 2nd half of the book does drag on a little bit. I hadn’t expected this from the early chapters, but by the end I was really just wanting to get it finished, as there was little being added by way of meaningful discourse.

That final criticism stated, they are relatively minor in light of the book as a whole. As an antidote to creationism/ID it is scientifically acute, gracious and incisive. As for being an apologetic work for christianity, it is fair, but doesn’t quite the mustard. But it still well worth reading.

Book review: The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins

Having been familiar with Dawkins from some of his articles, videos and tv appearances, it seemed appropriate to go back to the book that made him famous. Also, I’m aware that of late, I’ve rather neglected my science reading (this is only the 4th science book I’ve read this year, compared to 6 fiction and 8 christianity books), so I needed to catch up a bit.

It’s important to note that this is a book written back in the 1970s. The author who wrote it should not be mistaken for the divisive figure that he has become within the last 10 years. So if you were expecting this to be an ad hominem attack, I’m afraid that you will likely be disappointed. I come to this with the same critical eye that I read any other book with, but this is in no way prejudices my review.

The edition I picked up was the 30th anniversary edition, which comes with 3 prefaces and a foreword. They’re well worth reading, with the latest preface being notable for a slightly barbed comment aimed at, though not naming, Mary Midgley, who has been a proverbial thorn in Dawkins’ side for many years.

Reading the first few chapters, the most striking thing is Dawkins’ engaging narrative style. It can be little surprise that subsequent to writing this he was made a professor for the public understanding of science, as his written communication is crystal clear. In addition to the main text, there are some lengthy endnotes which appear to be mostly the product of later editions where there is an extremely defensive tone, in some exasperation of opposition born out of misunderstanding of the ideas and terminology used in the first edition.

At times, these footnotes do irritate as they break up the text a lot. So in this respect, it might have been better to amend the original text. However, this may have been due to an editorial decision, so it would be unfair to criticize Dawkins unduly for this stylistic nuisance.

Although the title of the book implies a book on genetics, this is largely confined to the early couple of chapters with the majority of the book looking at animal behaviour (his specialist subject) from a gene’s point of view. It is easy to see why some might take him for an atomist from these discussions, as he gives little countenance to causes other than genetic inheritance. This may simply be a consequence of his emphasis rather than reflecting his actual views, though such atomism is common, in my experience, amongst those who cite Dawkins as a major source of their scientific knowledge and understanding.

However, one has to recall warnings given early in the book about Dawkins’ use of terminology. Much of the book is written in simile and metaphor, with many adjectives loaded with the capacity to be misread if one reads the text as a literalist.

One of the key themes is altruism. That is, how do organisms end up helping one another out if their genes inheritance follows a rough pattern that might be described as “selfish.” Aren’t selfishness and altruism polar opposites? Dawkins argues that this is not so. In so doing, the prime target in Dawkins’ crosshairs are proponents of “group selection” which (very broadly speaking) favour the idea that animals and plants behave in such a way as to ensure the survival of their particular group. Dawkins argues convincingly that this is an illusion and gives examples where such a theory is left somewhat lacking where the selfish gene theory can provide a reasonable hypothesis.

With all this said, though, it has to be noted that Dawkins includes very little hard evidence in his book. To keep things interesting and engaging for the lay reader, we are presented with multiple anecdotes rather than scientific studies. So, reading with due scepticism, one should be wary of accepting all of Dawkins’ ideas unquestionably. Indeed, shortly after finishing the book, I was given a link to a paper (though unfortunately, it is hidden behind a paywall) which calls into question Dawkins’ “kin selection.”

This brings us to the weak points of the book. It begins in chapter 10, ‘You scratch my back, I’ll ride on yours’ where Dawkins make a quite startling comment for a scientist:

“One cannot really speak of ‘evidence’ for this idea, but….”

(it’s on page 182 of the 30th anniversary edition, if you want the full quote, it’s rather too long to copy) – yet in the next chapter, where Dawkins introduces the idea of a meme, he makes his statement that faith is

“blind trust, in the absence of evidence, even in the teeth of evidence.”

Of course, his definition has now become almost as famous as it is erroneous. Yet that fame could mistakenly lead one to think that this was an early example of Dawkins’ departure from science into the world of atheistic diatribe; it absolutely is not. It is merely an example that he used to illustrate his innovative idea on the transmission of information. Of course, subsequent decades of works on memetics have proved fruitless, and it is now abandoned as a serious line of enquiry by all but a vocal minority (here, I think of Susan Blackmore). If this surprises you, I would point you to the last ever edition of the journal of memetics where the situation was summed up quite nicely.

Following on from this, Dawkins looks at game theory which may seem out of place in a biology book, but which serves as a useful introduction to anyone who has not encountered it before. The book concludes with an additional chapter not included in the original edition. It is a concise summary of the follow-up book, The Extended Phenotype. It’s not an extract for a sequel, which I have seen in some publications, but it serves the same purpose, as an advert for the reader to make a further purchase. In this respect, it is quite successful, as it is as immensely fascinating as the rest of The Selfish Gene.

Though some of its ideas have now had severe doubt cast upon them, The Selfish Gene still stands as a wonderful pop science book on biology, and I would recommend it to anyone interested in science.

10 Reasons why I’d make a rubbish charismatic christian

I recently came across a few posts that were along the lines of “I’d make a rubbish [insert denomination/tradition/affiliation] christian” where the person identifies their own particular type of church. I’ve long thought that I don’t really belong in the kind of church that I do. I think part of it is that I would never want to attend a local church where I was totally comfortable; I like to be challenged and, in turn, to challenge others.

So this is my contribution/confession. I don’t identify my church, as I am not a spokesman for it, but it is sufficient to say that it is an independent charismatic Pentecostal church with no strong ties to any major national or international umbrella organisation. Just note, the only order here is the order I thought of them, and they are no way meant to represent any sort of scale of importance.

I’d make a rubbish charismatic because…

1. I’m not very charismatic. OK, I know that charismatic in the church sense is derived is ‘charismata’ meaning spiritual gifts (see point 6 below) but it is commonly taken in the English vernacular meaning of an outgoing, bubbly sort of person. I’m a quiet, withdrawn, dull sort of person.

2. I never finished The Purpose Driven Life. This seems to be one of the most widely read books in charismatic circles, but I couldn’t stand it. The introduction asks you to sign an agreement with the author, and asks that you only work through 1 tiny chapter each day. I don’t sign agreements readily and don’t’ restrict my reading. I could quite easily have finished the book in a week. But it was just so trite and patronising. And as for the theology, don’t get me started…

[Addendum: sine writing this, I did return to the book and have finished it. You may find a brief review here and a more detailed fisking of it here.]

3. I’m highly sceptical about the Toronto Blessing and Lakeland Revival. Much has been written and said on both of these events. My personal take (briefly) is that what may have started out as a genuine outpouring of the Holy Spirit was quickly overtaken by mass hysteria and hype. To the best of my knowledge, not one of the claimed healings at Lakeland was ever verified (please point me to the supporting evidence if I am wrong).

4. I don’t have the gift of tongues. This often seems to be over-emphasised in charismatic circles. I think it partly comes about as a result of a particular reading of 1 Corinthians 12:31 where Paul writes “strive for the greater gifts” and this is taken immediately to mean talking in foreign languages (or xenolalia). I’m not convinced it is (Paul, in the same book, writes that he would rather people prophesy than speak in foreign languages). I also find it quite demeaning when you hear the occasional preacher saying that if you don’t speak in tongues then you’re not a “true christian.” I find that really unhelpful and wonder how many people have left churches because of a similar rhetoric.

5. I don’t have a copy of the New Living Translation. This seems to be the most common version of the bible used in Charismatic churches, though it’s surprisingly hard to get hold of a copy in print. I had a discussion on what version of the bible I used recently.

6. I read the bible in Greek. This is not a boast. I can only read Greek due to the fact that I did a maths degree at university. We quickly ran out of symbols from the modern alphabets and by convention, Greek was the most common. I have had a go at reading Euclid in its original form, though that’s pretty touch going. I rely on Strong’s Greek dictionary in my concordance for the translations. If I am ever unsure about the particular phrasing I go back to the Greek to look it up. Most charismatics I know quote the bible as if it were written in English. Jesus did not say “I am the way the truth and the life,” because he didn’t speak English.

7. I’m not a young earth creationist. Though not a universal amongst charismatics, I think there is a broad leaning towards this view. I know there are some in my own church, and some that are not. For most, though, I don’t know what their view is. I’ve laid out mine here.

8. I don’t drink beer. What I find distinguishes charismatics from, say, baptists, is that fewer charismatics are tee-total. Meetings at the pub are fairly commonplace. However, I never acquired the taste for beer and the smell of it makes me nauseous.

9. I’m highly interested in Biblical origins. This is linked in with points 6 & 8 above. Most charismatics I have across don’t seem to consider the question too much and treat the bible as a neat package, delivered on their doorstep, with no questions about its origin being considered. I find it a fascinating field of study and makes me look at both biblical and non-biblical theological writings in a quite different way than I used to. I am writing a blog post on this subject at the moment, but have no idea when I shall finish.

10. I think that doubt is a valuable thing. I have often heard the notion “don’t think, just believe.” This is usually my prompt to walk out, as I think it’s an abandonment of rational thinking. When we’re called to “love God…with all our minds” I take that to mean we have to be intellectually honest, acknowledge uncertainty and be willing to admit we might be wrong. I subscribe to the view that doubt leads to enquiry which leads to improved knowledge & understanding. For an overview of my theological epistemology, see this.

Book Review: You Are Here by Christopher Potter

I was first made aware of this book some time ago by an article in the Guardian which interviewed him. I cannot find the link for the particular article in question, nor can I recall the details of it. What I do recall, however, is that it piqued my interest and sounded like the kind of casual science reading that is right up my street. So I bought it, and then it sat on my shelf for a couple of months, unread, while I got on with other reading (just hit the tag “book reviews” to see all the others I have done lately).

The opening chapter was a bit mixed, where he talks a little bit about his own history, plus a fairly random smattering of other things, with no real structure to it. It turns out that Potter had a very similar background to me, being as he did his undergraduate studies in maths, before going on to pursue other things for a career, while maintaining an interest in science. There did seem to be a metaphysic which he laid on top of what he regarded science to be which I have only ever come across in those who are entirely untrained in science and yet talk it about confidently as the answer to everything. However, the rest of the book showed that if were ignorant about science, that that was entirely hidden.

He does a whistle-stop tour of the major philosophical developments of science over the last 2,500 years or so, along with a brave and noble attempt to summarise quantum mechanics and general relativity for the lay reader; a task which he does with some aplomb and not a little dexterity.

From here, there was a slightly peculiar list of seemingly random things which were listed in order of size. Potter’s aim was to look at bigger and bigger scales, effectively zooming out from our world to look at the wider universe. From here, Potter takes on a parallel journey, though instead of going from the smallest size to the largest size, he wants to take us from the earliest time right through to the present day, taking in an overview of the developments in cosmology and high energy physics.

Overall, the book is very much at the lightweight end of science writing, but nonetheless thoroughly enjoyable. It is spoilt a little by technical errors, though these are relatively minor (for example, he states that “Humans are often carnivorous” when he should have said omnivorous). The other drawback that is has, which is specific for his advocacy of the scientific method, is that he does not include references. All we have is a bibliography of further reading, where there is no linking between the books referenced and the relevant passages. The reader is left to work this out by the titles, I think. However, that would not stop me from recommending as a great book, especially a “starter” for someone not overly familiar with ‘pop science.’

On creationism/ID

I would like to thank Lewis S for his well-considered post in reply to an earlier post I made. Lewis had clearly thought through the issues discussed and the challenges he raises deserve an equally considered response, I feel. They also touch on a number of subjects which I think concern a lot of Christians and critics of Christianity. Of those, I will choose to look at one in particular

Creationism/ID

For the record, I do not subscribe to young earth creationism or to the Intelligent Design (ID) hypothesis. I think there is a quite profound difference between the belief that God created the world and the belief in a particular method of how He/It did it. As you will be able to read elsewhere, I recently read through Darwin’s The Origin of Species, and found that apart from the introduction which was not written by Darwin, there is nothing overtly atheistic about it. It seems to me that the idea of “special creation” has been bound up in many people’s minds with the core of the Abrahamic religions, and that by undermining the former, that the latter is then consequently undermined too. I do not agree with this view, as I consider it to demonstrate a poor grasp of theology (which I think is true in a lot, though not necessarily all, creationists) and a stretching of the good science into conclusions where the evidence does not reach.

I have no issue with creationists or ID proponents believing what they do, and am perfectly happy to worship in church alongside them. While I believe them to be mistaken, it is no reason to break up personal relationships or to adopt any kind of haughty attitude. To me, the core of Christianity is the person, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, along with the subsequent soteriology that that entails. Anything else is a distraction and I would not want anything petty to break apart such relationships.

One of the labels that is often applied to YEC/ID proponents is “anti-science” which I personally think is a bit harsh, particularly on the ID supporters. To quote Richard Feynman,

“Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts.”

Those who dissent from scientific consensus tend to fall into one of two categories: genius or crackpot. It is by questioning what we commonly accept that a lot of progress may be made. But there may also be a lot of wayward pot-shots that happen along the way. In my experience, there are often a few gems hidden within the criticisms of YEC/IDers that deserve serious consideration, but given how far their main hypothesis lies from mainstream science, they are disregarded wholesale.

Where I see the failings of YECers is that while they may well accept scientific methodologies, their conclusions are biased, based on a pre-existing paradigm. IDers are merely pursuing a route of falsification which Darwin mentions several times in Origin. So the fact that they keep coming up with possible examples of potentially irreducibly complex structures which do turn out to be explainable by means of natural selection, I think, adds to the body of evidence supporting Darwin. All too often in debates around creationism and evolution, I think those on the side of evolution don’t put up the best possible argument but instead refer to rhetoric and name-calling, unwilling to engage with those who disagree with them. At times, it seems as though it is a default position to adopt simply because of their distaste with any possible alternatives. To me, scientific integrity means it should be questioned and challenged; if it can be falsified, then it is important that serious attempts should be made to pursue such lines of enquiry.

I find it interesting to compare the approaches taken by creationists such as Ken Ham to that of Fred Hoyle’s view of the Big Bang theory. Ham objects to evolution, not because of any particular flaws in the theory but because he disagrees with a particular conclusion that may be reached from it; namely the undermining of his worldview of the creator god. Hoyle objected to Big Bang theory because he felt it accorded too well with the Judaeo-Christian view of the world having a beginning, which may then imply a creator (c.f. Thomas Aquinas and the “first-mover” idea). Both of these men start out by objecting to a possible corollary and then went in search of the evidence to undermine the theory. As far as I know, Hoyle never adopted the big bang model of the origin of the universe, in spite of its near universal acceptance in modern science (an interesting recent exception being the severe modification proposed by Roger Penrose’s conformal cyclic cosmology hypothesis). While I do not agree with Ken Ham, I think he sometimes given a rougher time than he deserves, as some of his critiques are not without basis.

To my view, the problem with Christians who reject evolution is shared with some atheists who reject Christianity. It is the problem of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. I fully acknowledge there are problems with Christianity, and I will touch on one or two of these later on. At the same time I acknowledge that there are problems with evolution. If there weren’t, there would be no need for research; we would know everything. But the fact that both have their difficulties does not mean that I will reject them outright. Indeed, I am happy to embrace both as working hypotheses.

To return to what I think Lewis S was getting at, even though he didn’t phrase it quite as such is this: how do I reconcile the creation account in Genesis with evolution? To me, the key is about trying to understand Genesis in the context in which it was written and what would have been observed by the writer(s) and readers. Without an extensive knowledge and study of biology, as Darwin, Russell and their contemporaries had, it would be highly surprising indeed if the author(s) of Genesis would have come up with a description that mirrored our current understanding of the development of life. They were merely expressing themselves in the best way they possibly could. There is some indication, though I would not like to stress the point too much, that the civilisation which produced the book of Genesis had a grasp of what structures in nature were more complicated. This is given by the “order of creation” in the genesis account which, with a few exceptions, broadly mirrors the current scientific consensus.Andrew Parker has recently written a book entitled The Genesis Enigma which goes a lot further than I would consider reasonable along this route, though I shall say no more about it here.

It was also long before Darwin that Christian scholars and apologists warned against taking the start of Genesis in what we would not call a literalist manner. Augustine of Hippo wrote a piece called De Genesi ad litteram in which he advocated such a view. And this was written in the late 3rd/early 4th century!

I have to say that I am not a biologist, so can boast no evolutionary training beyond the average. Instead, my master’s degree was in mathematics, with a very heavy dose of physics (in the last couple of years, subjects covered included quantum mechanics, general relativity, twistor theory, string theory, fluid dynamics and electrodynamics). For that reason, the particular areas of creationism that I felt most able to look at were their physics explanation for a young earth. The two dominant ideas here were the slowing down of thespeed of light (which, if true, could help explain the red-shifting of galaxies and get past the rather awkward fact of any object being more than 10,000 light years away) and the decreasing strength of the earth’s magnetic field (where an extrapolation is taken and an argument is made than with a much stronger magnetic field, life could not exist on earth). The former argument was dependent on a single paper that has since been debunked, as the author cherry-picked his data and made an arbitrary cut-off date at which light stopped slowing down. This happened to coincide with the most accurate measurements of the speed of light. The author also supposed that all measurements (including those where the only available light was a candle!) were entirely accurate. The latter theory may have seemed more promising, were it not for the mathematical uncertainties that creep in when using any form of extrapolation model. Here, I think of the GCSE experiment in Hooke’s law using a spring where the students discover that you can’t extrapolate your results, as it misses a change in the molecular structure that changes the deformation from elastic to plastic. Also, the discovery of geomagnetic reversal was the final nail in that particular coffin.

This was roughly the route by which I largely came to reject creationism. One line I have heard a few times from creationists who cannot fathom that someone can both be a Christian AND be persuaded by the evidence for evolution is “well, if you don’t believe the first chapters of the Bible, how can you say you believe it?” I consider this argument to be both fatuous and vacuous. It fails to recognise the Bible as a compendium of books, not a single book by a single author. It also draws on some strange form of logic whereby rejection or acceptance of one part (in a literalist manner) compels you to reject or accept the whole. It is rather like saying you disagree with an editorial piece in a newspaper, and thereby being forced to reject the entire contents of the said paper.

So what shall I say in conclusion, then? The fact that I am persuaded by the evidence for evolution in no way diminishes my Christian faith. It would be truly astonishing if the authors of the book of Genesis had given an account that was technically accurate, as it would have required a breadth of study and technology that was far beyond what was available at the time.