Man overboard!

January 10, 2010 • 4:34 am

By Matthew Cobb

Over at the Times Literary Supplement this week, Richard Fortey wearily reviews Andrew Parker’s The Genesis Enigma: Why the Bible is scientifically accurate. Fortey is a trilobite paleontologist who has written some great popular science books. Professor Parker has previously written a couple of popular science books, revolving around the evolutionary importance of vision. In The Blink of an Eye (2003) was a rather overstated and speculative account of the role of vision in the Cambrian Explosion (which I have nevertheless referred to in my teaching), while Seven Deadly Colours (2005) provided a fascinating look at the role of colour in evolution. In 2000 Parker was named as a ‘Scientist for the New Century’ by The Royal Institution. He is now at Green-Templeton College at Oxford (no relation to the Templeton Foundation).

Since then, Parker has got religion. He apparently had a revelation in the Sistine Chapel, and realized that our (or rather, his) scientific understanding of evolution “corresponds precisely with the creation account in Genesis”. Never fear, however – Parker hasn’t gone completely loopy and turned into a New Earth Creationist. As he states: “Needless to say, the ‘seven day’ creation story, where the universe and life were supposedly created in seven actual days, along with other irrational ideas will not be entertained in The Genesis Enigma, with its logical and commonsense rationale.” That’s alright then.

The “logical and commonsense rationale” of The Genesis Enigma consists of looking at Genesis and matching it up with our understanding of evolution. As Fortey points out in his generally excellent review*, this is often just bizarre. For example: “Let there be lights in the firmament of the heaven to divide the day from the night, and let them be for signs and for seasons, and for days and years” (Genesis 1: 14) is taken by Parker to refer to the appearance of vision in animals, rather than the appearance of the sun and the stars…

Parker sums up his view thus: “In fact the order and sequences of events in the entire Genesis creation account is astonishingly accurate. (…) The parallel uncovered is even more extraordinary given that there’s no way the accuracy of the Genesis creation story could be the result of a lucky guess. It appears that the author of the creation account had predicted precisely the true history of the earth and life. The Genesis Enigma will explain that no human could have constructed a creation story in this way, particularly in Biblical times.”

Leaving aside the patently absurd idea that the old folk texts we now call “Genesis” had a single author, this raises two alternatives. Either Parker thinks omnipotent God whispered in the ear of “the author”, or it was written by a space alien. I hope Professor Parker will not consider me rude if I say I really can’t be bothered to find out which of these barmy alternatives (or any others his fevered imagination may have conjured up) he finally plumps for. As Leon Trotsky once said: “Man overboard. Sail on.”

[* My only quibble is when Fortey writes: “The best that can be said of The Genesis Enigma is that it has its heart in the right place, seeking out some middle ground between science and religion.” As Parker inadvertently shows, that mythical middle ground is always situated in the territory of the believers.]

33 thoughts on “Man overboard!

  1. I did a thought experiment recently in which I tried to figure out any scenario where I, as a rational atheist, could be convinced of the truth of a theistic faith – a Francis Collins type situation.
    I first ruled out the sort of miracles that even theists admit will never happen (a 900 foot Jesus appearing or a message from Allah suddenly spelled out in the stars).
    I then quickly disposed of the traditional arguments (design, ontological etc).
    Finally it struck me that there might be one possible way I could be convinced of the truth of a theistic religion. This hypothetical scenario would involve a personal disaster and terrible loss – say the death of a family member, spouse or child such that I couldn’t cope with the prospect of never seeing them again. In that situation even the false hope of religion might be enough to cause me to abandon reason.
    I posit this as a hypothetical rather than an actual situation – when a family member recently died I did not turn to religion but it helped me understand understand that some people might be tempted, or vulnerable enough to do so. For these individuals religion’s notion of a ‘soul’ acts as a sort of artificial life support machine, keeping their family members alive indefinitely. To hear atheists simply state there is no soul must be akin to seeing someone maliciously tugging at the power-lead.
    To me this surrender of reason in favor of faith is plausible only in situations of psychological crisis.
    I suspect situations of this sort involve many of the ‘atheist turned religious’ stories (like Collins again). It also is predictive that even prominent atheists are not immune to such ‘conversion events’ themselves.
    I doubt the conversion event of Parker, like that of Collins, was simply a moment of clarity in seeing the beauty of the Sistine chapel or a frozen waterfall. These are convenient and poetic imagery to bookend a process that may have taken some time but I suspect almost always involves the loss of a loved one.

    1. I answer the question of how I, an atheist, could be convinced of the existence of God, by saying that the almighty and all-knowing creator of universes should be able to think of a way to convince me, and so far, He hasn’t.

    2. In the last few years I have gone through an auto accident that put my brand new fiance (now wife) in a wheelchair, followed by my descent into alcoholism and being told repeatedly that the only way to recover was the Christian-inspired and religion-infused 12-step recovery movement (AA, etc.). Far from inclining me to faith, these events sapped my remaining tolerance for even going through the motions in church for my mother’s sake, and made my vague, new-agey attempts at reconciling religion with some — any — facet of reality utterly untenable in my mind. Even at my worst, I always felt I would rather die a miserable drunk than sign on to “faith,” even in a “sophisticated” form.

      Thank God (heh-heh!) there is a secular alternative to AA; I’ve been sober for more than two years now without abandoning reason.

    3. any scenario where I, as a rational atheist, could be convinced of the truth of a theistic faith

      I believe I understand what you are saying. At least I know of great loss, albeit I suspect from statistics that we each experience and deal with it individually (but with common traits, surely).

      A similar ground is pattern match when there actually seems to be a low likelihood for it. I’m thinking of the type Will Smith smuggling in the religious idea in “I am Legend” of scientist – good with numbers – atheist (Smith’s virologist) becoming converted by the small odds that he and humanity was saved. (Albeit in his case only temporarily so he could become martyre.)

      That is like noting that IIRC diversity of life never recovered between the first series of mass extinctions until The Big One, and then for some reason of ecology that turned around. What were the odds? “It was a miracle!” Never mind the observer effect…

      But nevertheless there are other ways. Things that would convince me that religion is correct would be things like positives in prayer studies, or if it turns out that creation ex nihilo occurs.

      In fact, those are testable. I would argue that convincing is never enough, I would need test.

      [What they test is the theory that everything is natural. As Stenger and Deutsch notes, reality (material systems) “kick back when kicked”, observation begets observables. Causation is explicitly rejected by creation ex nihilo, and implicitly so by positive prayers as there is neither medium to bear signals nor natural processes behind putative supernatural agent actions.

      Btw, I estimate that ~ 5 years of current scientific output has yielded enough natural models without a single non-natural acausal model needed, that a binomial test passes 3 sigma. (Depending on how you do it, ~ 250 000 tests of natural models are enough.)

      Personally I accept the theory as tested beyond reasonable doubt, and notes that it rejects such things as “theistic evolution” as it is more parsimonious. Among accepted and compared theories There Can (most often) Only Be One. 😀 It seems to be a fact that there are no gods.

      But that is me.]

      1. Torbjörn, the prayer studies type of proof for religion I take as evidence for a miracle – which I guess it would be if it were proven true. The studies have been done and have been negative – as have all other claims for miracles.
        What I am suggesting is a non miraculous way someone could switch from atheist to believer.
        It certainly involves some sort of mental breakdown and submission of reason but it may not necessarily impinge on all aspects of ones intellect. For instance, while it shows up clearly in situations like the aforementioned Parker, trying to shoehorn the book of genesis into science, I can imagine someone who is an engineer or mathematician having little problem tying their area of work with their new found theism.

    4. What turned from a theist to an atheist was mostly finding each and every line of evidence that supposedly supported theism to be BS.

      I suppose the road back to theism for me would require substantial evidence that so far has been entirely lacking.

      Even then, the POE would prevent me from admiring that “god” very much if at all.

  2. Only a raging narcissist could claim the Bible to be accurate after visitng the Sistine Chapel. That’s like someone claiming Murphy’s Law to be a divine ordinance after visiting Cabrini-Green.

  3. There are several examples of prominent scientists who have gone over to the dreck side. Are there any who have returned to their senses and issued a mea culpa?

  4. Just based on the TLS review, it looks like Parker doesn’t even attempt to reconcile the two contradictory Genesis accounts: Genesis 1—creation of plants then animals then humans—versus Genesis 2—creation of humans first, then plants then animals.

    Mustn’t Parker reconcile Genesis with causality before he reconciles it with science?

    BTW, the best Genesis account by far (including both!) is R. Crumb’s Book of Genesis Illustrated.

    1. I’m still waiting to find that book in a bookshop. I’m afraid I may have to import it (along with WEIT which never appeared in these backwaters – well, if you can call an arid land a backwater).

      1. Last week, the L.A. Times listed it as the best selling work of fiction in Los Angeles; this week it’s #9. It was probably a popular Christmas present.

  5. What’s always interesting about these wonderful revelations is that they never were noted before the the scientific explanations arose, but only appear afterward.

    So apparently God got it right, yet couldn’t write it so that people understand it properly–until the Sistine Chapel experience, or some such thing.

    The YECs do get one thing right at least, which is that their story does not agree with science.

    Glen Davidson

    1. What I find irritating is the assertion that the texts and their authors “always” had this meaning, which was only recently invented by commentators who were trying to square science and other modern discoveries with these ancient texts written by people who didn’t have a clue about such things.

      Yes, we can interpret anything allegorically — as Sam Harris did with a cookbook in his “The End of Faith” — but the exercise is largely a waste of time.

  6. When taken one by one (or perhaps even two by two as in genesis) I have neither the motivation nor the inclination to debate / undermine anybody’s faith. When this intellectual inertia builds momentum (another muddy metaphor there) and – as in the USA, my temporary residence, acceptance of and promotion of the literal or semi-literal Biblical account holds sway, then something impolite needs to be done.
    The main, well rehearsed point is that creationism is not ‘another point of view’. It’s one specific, narrow narrative which is set against an entire mode of thought, i.e. the scientific, the theory verifiable by observation and repeated testing. That an acceptance of even the idea of creationism opens the door to statistical whim over individually testable hypothesis is the most sinister.
    If I were God, I’d much rather populate the world with questioning atheists rather than the arrays of mental Uriah Heeps.
    On the other hand, with no disrespect, regarding mental solace and stability in hard times, doesn’t any strongly held belief function, in rather the way an ‘x’ can appear and cancel out on both sides of an equation? All psychically verifiable impressions function, but what the ‘x’ actually is, is irrelevant.
    I always feel very dim even arguing this question. I had thought we all left it way behind in those 5th form arguments with our R.E. teachers.
    Apparently not, more’s the pity.
    Allah is merciful.

  7. Given that the creation sequence in Genesis 1 is virtually identical to that in the much older Babylonian creation myth described in the Enuma Elish, Parker’s argument leads me to conclude that we should all be worshipping Marduk and Ishtar.

    “In fact the order and sequences of events in the entire [Babylonian] creation account is astonishingly accurate. (…) The parallel uncovered is even more extraordinary given that there’s no way the accuracy of the [Babylonian] creation story could be the result of a lucky guess. It appears that the author of the creation account had predicted precisely the true history of the earth and life. The [Enuma Elish] Enigma will explain that no human could have constructed a creation story in this way, particularly in [pre-]Biblical times.”

    I wonder if Parker would be willing to accept his own line of reasoning when it leads to the conclusion that he should reject Yahweh and Jesus in favor of a “pagan” pantheon. Somehow I doubt it. Theists always seem to judge the truth of their arguments based solely on how well the conclusion matches their personal preferences.

    1. My rejection of faith has been a series of steps, some of them big, some of them small, most of them involving evolution.

      The realisation that the Genesis account was basically plagiarised from the Babylonians is the reason I ultimately rejected the last of my christian agnosticism for atheism.

      It also kindled my ongoing outrage at how much christians lie and distort the history of their own texts.

    2. That’s an awesome point. I think you should find a way to ask Parker that question and report back his response. As you say, somehow I doubt his “pure search for truth” will extend so far as changing gods.

  8. It’s so astonishing. Those who interpret it literally are completely bonkers, but if you interpret it in the context of seeing then hey, that’s why the sun and moon and stars come after the creation of plants… *roll*

    So when people say that science and religion are “Non-overlapping Magisteria”, we can always point at people like this as evidence that if the scientific evidence were for religion that there would be no hesitation to try to keep science and religion being separate domains.

    1. Well said. I have written on my blog before that I could theoretically support NOMA if both sides truly agreed for it to be non-overlapping. But it just doesn’t work that way.

      I actually am far less annoyed by the rare YEC who is like, “Well, I really don’t care about the science at all, because my faith tells me it’s this way, and so therefore it is.” It’s an intellectually lazy and philosophically bankrupt position to hold, but at least there are no factual problems with it.

      But the very second anybody tries to show a shred of evidence or historicity for their religion, they have officially forfeited the NOMA defense. Even something as simple as saying, “There must be some type of God to facilitate ex nihilo creation”, that contradicts NOMA and means all further claims are subject to evaluation by science and reason. (i.e. major fail)

  9. He’s lost it – quick, prepare a padded room. It is amazing how such people don’t seem to see how they are twisting stories to suit them – are they consciously lying or is there something else wrong with their brain?

    1. I don’t think it’s likely that there’s anything wrong with his brain, nor do I find it surprising that a scientist can start to think like this, there’s nothing about the people who do science that makes them fundamentally different from the rest of us. If bloke ‘A’ can believe five daft things before breakfast so can bloke ‘B’ even if he’s got a string of letters after his name and as anyone of average intelligence can tell you, clever people can be bewilderingly dumb at times.

      1. Well, at least clever have greater capability in some things, including to mess up and/or fool themselves.

  10. This an eminent test of Dawkins meme theory, as religious memes floats around and may become picked up when adaptive. (Say, as Sigmund noted, as an alternative when dealing with losses.)

    In other words, if you don’t have a basic immune system that pushes the invader out at all times, it may find a niche as untestable “explanation” comfort blanket. Of course, after the loss is acute, the meme-model symbiosis turns into parasitism unless the host recover his senses.

    On the other hand it also shows how religion works by rejecting testability.

    As stsmith noted, as anything “accurate” this religious text is a non-starter.

    More generally, we know that people are pattern seekers, and we know how to test for it. Heck, we even know that religious arenas are not only pattern seeking, but that there are numerous falsified attempts. (Say, bible codes.)

    How come a scientist doesn’t care about the likelihood it is all false, and the tests that shows that, individually (say, test for bible code likelihood) and generally (they are all falsified)?

    As someone said, the man has gone bonkers. In triplicate.

  11. Re: He is now at Green-Templeton College at Oxford (no relation to the Templeton Foundation).

    Maybe not the Templeton Foundation, but the same Sir John Templeton. I’m thinking that following Templeton’s death his foundation probably has some influence there.


    Templeton College was created when the late Sir John Templeton gave the Oxford Centre for Management Studies one of the largest benefactions ever made to a British educational establishment to help raise professional standards in British management.

  12. “As Parker inadvertently shows, that mythical middle ground is always situated in the territory of the believers.”

    And it is always situated in the territory of science too. Such is the nature of middle grounds.

    1. In this case, not so much, no. If there is any part of the argument that includes “there’s this untestable, unknowable, supernatural thing happening”, then it’s firmly OUTSIDE the realm of science. It’s not in the middle, it’s 100% religious.

      Religious belief and faith are by definition outside the realm of science, because they are impossible to falsify. The claims derived from faith, scripture, etc. ARE testable, and to my knowledge have failed every reasonable test applied to date. But the faith and belief that generated those claims cannot be falsified.

      So there is no middle ground. There’s a bright, clear line, on one side of which is the completely non-scientific realm of faith, where all arguments have an untestable core or background, and on the other is the realm of science, where all arguments are ultimately subject to criticism, logical evaluation, and falsification.

      Back on-topic… I’ve seen more than one step-by-step comparison of Genesis (1, 2, or both) against what we know of the history of the universe, the solar system, and life on Earth. There’s as much overlap as if you arbitrarily divided up these 3 stories into an arbitrary number of steps (say, 6, as in days) and arranged the components in random order. Putting an emphasis on one small aspect, like one individual sensory mode, doesn’t help make the stories agree with each other, they are mutually incompatible.

      I think I read Peter Watts say once that a prominent vision, like God appearing in the sky, flaming sword in hand, pronouncing upon our wickedness or some such, would actually lead him to suspect “brain chemistry hijack” not “divine intervention”. Halucinations happen, and are not miracles, they’re the go-to hypothesis.

  13. Not much to add other than the loss of loved ones made me more definitely an atheist. I gave up any sort of belief around 1987, when I reached the age of reason (to steal one of my favorite George Carlin lines). Like others in this thread I walked the line between agnostic and atheist which was directly correlated with how obnoxious the fundies were being at any given time.

    As for the two Genesis stories, YECs usually defend that by saying that Genesis 2 is just a detailed description of Genesis 1 and no timeline is implied, therefore no conflict. It is tiresome to go ’round and ’round with them on it.

    One has an easier time pointing out that there is no evidence of a global flood, no ark has been found on Ararat, continuing on to Exodus, no record of that many Jews in Egypt, no evidence that a nation of 600,000 plus, plus, plus people wandered the desert for 40 years. And flatly incorrect/inconsistent information throughout.

  14. “…seeking out some middle ground between science and religion…” as if two fundamentalists representing black and white can agree that gray is the best view.

    In my view, scientists begin with a hypothesis to be tested while fundamentalists begin with a premise to be defended.

    No contest!!!

    1. H.H. commented kindly on this thought and suggested I contact Professor Parker with it. I will not because he has access to all he needs at Oxford without my thinking. His writings are that of a pure Biblical literalist: he knows the truth and will not be bothered by untidy facts.

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