Posted on January 20, 2017 * Comments

Image of Darwin from The Book of Knowledge

The Butler Act, outlawing the teaching in Tennessee’s public schools of “any theory that denies the divine creation of man and teaches instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals,” became law on March 21, 1925. But it really wasn’t a matter of national interest until May 1925, when, in short order, John Thomas Scopes agreed to become the defendant in a case testing the law’s constitutionality, William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow agreed to join the legal teams representing the prosecution and the defense (respectively), and Scopes was duly indicted. That was enough to kindle interest in the issue of teaching evolution around the country. And my choice of the particular verb “kindle” is deliberate.

Posted on January 13, 2017 * Comments

Happy New Year from NCSEteach, NCSE’s teacher outreach program! We are excited to be back in action for another year packed with climate change and evolution education.

Thirty-six scientist-teacher pairs across the country participated last semester in NCSEteach’s Scientist in the Classroom program, reaching several hundred students in all. As you know, after a first introductory visit, the scientist returns for a visit to work with the teacher to implement a hands-on activity.

There was a great diversity in the activities last semester! For example:

Posted on January 05, 2017 * Comments

The example of the watch in William Paley’s Natural Theology (1802) is famous. A stone found on a heath, Paley explains, seems not to require any explanation, but a watch, with its component parts apparently designed to perform a function, demands to be explained, and explained, moreover, in terms of a designer. And the same is true, he argues at length, of living things. Although Paley is sometimes credited with the example of the watch, it is, I think, generally recognized that he was only the latest in a long string of writers to use horology in the service of natural theology: Cicero, in the first century BCE, similarly appealed to sundials and water-clocks in De natura deorum. So Paley wasn’t original. But was he a plagiarist?

Posted on December 28, 2016 * Comments

Title of Allem's thesisIn “Evolution in the Back Seat,” I mentioned Warren Allem’s 1959 University of Tennessee, Knoxville master’s thesis, “Backgrounds of the Scopes Trial at Dayton, Tennessee.” Allem’s thesis is well worth a read, I think, if you’re interested in the Scopes trial, especially because it’s freely available on-line. The main attraction is the interviews he conducted with various residents of Dayton who witnessed the events surrounding the trial. These interviews are frequently cited in the scholarly and popular literature—Edward J. Larson in “The Scopes Trial in History and Legend” (in David C. Lindberg and Ronald L. Numbers’s edited volume When Science and Christianity Meet, 2008), Michael Lienesch in In the Beginning (2007), and Randy Moore in Evolution in the Courtroom (2002), for example, all cite Allem’s thesis.

Posted on December 19, 2016 * Comments

2016 was a pretty intense year for NCSE’s Science Booster Club program. We explored lots of new ways to engage with people, and managed to reach over 54,000 people in Iowa in person with our hands-on evolution and climate change activities.

In December 2016, we’ve been engaged in a big push for expansion, thanks to the funds and connections supporters contributed in a huge outpouring of generosity following the election in early November. As we promised our donors at the time, we are now moving westwards in a big way.

Posted on December 14, 2016 * Comments

Charles Lyell, via Wikimedia Commons

In “A Pseudo-Darwin Quotation,” I was discussing a spurious quotation that William Bell Riley seemed to have invented and misattributed to Darwin in his pamphlet “Evolution—A False Philosophy,” published sometime in the 1930s. Part of my interest stemmed from the fact that Riley imported the “why are there still monkeys?” challenge into the passage, although it was missing from the actual passage from Darwin that Riley was, more or less, paraphrasing. A persistent, widespread, and tiresomely familiar objection to evolution, the challenge “if humans evolved from monkeys, why are there still monkeys?” presupposes a misconception of evolution as exclusively consisting of change within a lineage, neglecting the possibility of a lineage’s splitting, resulting in two divergent lineages—such as those eventuating in today’s monkeys and today’s humans, not to put too fine a point on it.

Posted on December 12, 2016 * Comments

I held a small, private moment of silence last week when I heard that John Glenn had passed away at the age of 95.

Posted on December 06, 2016 * Comments

Riley's pseudo-Darwin quotationIn “Evolution—A False Philosophy,” a pamphlet published sometime in the 1930s by William Bell Riley (1861–1947), the Baptist preacher who was as responsible for the flourishing of the antievolution crusade of the 1920s as anyone, there appears a spurious quotation attributed to Darwin. Riley is here concerned to claim that the “whole doctrine of transmutation”—change in species—is “unknown to nature’s ways,” and he naturally wants to invoke Darwin in support.

This fact was admitted by Darwin himself. Here is Darwin’s language from “The Descent of Man,” the 1874 edition:

“It is asking a great deal of intelligent people to believe the theory which is not supported by evidence, just where evidence is most needed. Now these missing links, if there are any, should be more highly developed than the forms lower down in the scale from which they evolved, and therefore more able to continue. Then why not continue, if they ever evolved, while their weaker progenitors, less able to live, continue to this day?”

Now listen to Darwin’s answer to his own question:

“But this objection will not appear of much weight to those who, from general reasons, believe in the general principle of Evolution.” (emphasis in original)

Although the answer is Darwin’s (except for the emphasis on “weight” and the capital E in “Evolution”), the question is not. What Darwin wrote was, “The great break in the organic chain between man and his nearest allies, which cannot be bridged over by any extinct or living species, has often been advanced as a grave objection to the belief that man is descended from some lower form,” to which he answered, “But this objection,” etc.

Posted on November 28, 2016 * Comments

Giving Tuesday is a designated time to remember the causes you hold dear while you’re doing your holiday shopping. This year, I hope you’ll consider putting a little something in NCSE ‘s stocking.

Why give to NCSE?

I’ll give you two reasons:

1. Because what NCSE does is really important; and 

2. No other organization in the country does what we do.