Charles Darwin to receive posthumous official apology from Church of England

The Sunday Telegraph reports that, in the bicentennial year of Darwin’s birth and the 150th anniversary of the publication of the revolutionary book, Origin of Species, the Church of England is to issue an official apology to Charles Darwin for its initial rejection of his scientific theories.

The statement, on a church website dedicated to Darwin’s theories, will read:

Charles Darwin: 200 years from your birth, the Church of England owes you an apology for misunderstanding you and, by getting our first reaction wrong, encouraging others to misunderstand you still. We try to practise the old virtues of ‘faith seeking understanding’ and hope that makes some amends.

I’m not really sure why they feel the need to say this, but it’s nice all the same.

The most famous conflict between the church and advocates of Darwin’s theories was the Oxford Union Debate in 1860. most memorable for an exchange between Thomas Henry Huxley and Samuel Wilberforce, the Bishop of Oxford.  Wilberforce asked Huxley whether it was through his grandfather or his grandmother that he claimed his descent from a monkey.  Huxley responded that he would not be ashamed to have a monkey for his ancestor, but he would be ashamed to be connected with a man who used his great gifts to obscure the truth.

Ice Age predictions are premature

A Scene on the Ice

A Scene on the Ice

The internet has been full of speculation about the late start of Solar Cycle 24, with some voices predicting an abrupt drop in global average temperatures associated with a prolonged sun spot minimum, like one that affected temperatures in the early nineteenth century.

While it was quickly rebutted within the mainstream scientific community, the speculation has continued to provide a source of comfort for those who remain skeptical about global warming.

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Tangled Bank #113

Science wonks and wonkettes lusting for more of the hard stuff can head over to En Tequila Es Verdad for issue number 113 of the science blog carnival, Tangled Bank.  I’ve got two items on there myself.

Men’s marital behavior may be influenced by vasopressin receptor gene

A variant of a gene for a peptide hormone receptor has been implicated in marital discord

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Pennsylvania University museum exhibition refutes “Intelligent Design”

The Wall Street Journal recently carried an article about the new multimedia exhibition at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, “Surviving: The Body of Evidence”.   Using exhibits such as a life-sized transparent model of a recumbent woman, the exhibition demonstrates the features that life has evolved to enable it to survive.  The message is that our bodies, being a product of natural selection, are functional, but far from perfect.  The exhibition took five years to put together, and was created by Janet Monge and Alan Mann, two academics who formerly taught a course on human adaptation at the university.  It is part of a year long Philadelphia-base project known as the Year of Evolution.

Geography is encoded in the genes

Two studies have shown that, although genetic diversity in Europe is low, it is possible to determine which locations are in a European’s ancestry by examining his genome.

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Tangled Bank #112 is out

Oh I forgot to mention that Tangled Bank #112 went up on the Science Notes blog on Thursday.  In case you’re not familiar with this, it’s described by PZ Myers as “a weekly showcase of good weblog writing, selected by the authors themselves…[in the] field of science and medicine, very broadly defined.”  And it contains my first contribution.

If you were given 30 seconds on television to address everyone in the world, what would you say?

(Hold up card giving name, home address, email address and website URL)

Hi, I’m (name), please get paper and a pen or pencil.  This is the first ever attempt to carry out a simultaneous experiment involving everybody in the world.  If you want to participate, quickly write down this information (indicate card) and listen carefully.  I have only 15 more seconds.

Please write down your name, address, sex, and age in years.  Then, write down the earliest childhood experience you remember. Describe your earliest memory in no more than ten words, and write down how old you were in years or months, and send it to me at my address, in email or on the web.

Thank you.

The third rail

Greg Laden recently wrote about how “When black people run, white people take notice.  When black people run fast, white people, alarmed, find naturalistic (= as in animals) explanations.  But when a group of white people excell (beach volley ball or gymnastics) personal stories of heroics are used to explain the result.”  He’s criticising the distortion that leads to scientific researchers looking for a genetic cause for athletic excellence, which is driven by and in turn feeds the simplified racial models of popular culture.

And he’s hit a huge brawl in the comments, over his discussion of the social construction of race.  I lack the patience to disentangle what is going on here, but I’m reminded of Gould’s 1981 book, The Mismeasure of Man, which was simultaneously a good lay introduction to factor analysis and a forthright attack on biological determinism.  In 1996, never one to dodge a political controversy, Gould updated the book to deliver a savage attack on the then-popular conclusions of The Bell Curve.

I notice here that there seems to be no discussion of the science in his original posting at all, but there’s certainly plenty of discussion.  Race remains a third rail in American society and American bloggers–even fully qualified biological anthropologists like Greg–go there at their peril.

Blame Plato

I’ve sometimes been stumped by a creationist question about evolution.  Not unable to give a satisfactory answer, you understand, but unable to understand why the questioner asked the question in the first place.  Why, I have often wondered, do people ask questions like “if we’re evolved from apes, why are there still apes?”  Do they imagine, I have wondered, that the theory of evolution says that all animals of a species change at once?

Reading “What Evolution Is” by Ernst Mayr (ISBN 0-297-60741-3) has shed some light on that question.  In this very methodical and clear account of evolutionary thought, Chapter 4, How And Why Evolution Takes Place, describes the difference between Darwin’s “population thinking” and the philosophical ideas it supplanted.

According to Mayr it’s all Plato’s fault.  Or rather, the Pythagorean school that inspired his thought.  For over two millennia the essentialist thinking of the Pythagoreans ruled the thinking of European philosophers.  This inspired the monadism of Leibniz, for instance.  Species were fixed.  The very words species and genus were used by Plato’s greatest student, Aristotle, to describe a natural essence–an unchangeable form that was eternally defined by its characteristics.  These ideas died hard, and in many ways they’re still with us.

One alternative to fixed species, that was favored by Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, was Transmutation of species.  The transmutationism of Lamarck found favor with English thinkers such as Charles Darwin’s grandfather Erasmus Darwin, the computer pioneer Charles Babbage who appears to have envisaged the rolling out of new species according to a divine computer or jacquard loom program, and the publisher Robert Chambers.

In time, Darwin’s population thinking won out, but for a while it was not obvious that the old pythagorean concepts were going to lie down and die.