Group of “science-savvy” UK liberals urge denial of the sex binary

October 6, 2023 • 12:30 pm

This is an object lesson not only in the pollution of science by ideology, but also in how to make a fool of yourself by not learning about other areas of science before you pronounce on them.

A reader affiliated with a UK earth-sciences department sent me a letter circulated around that department, but it’s also circulating widely. The link goes to the whole letter but I’ll reproduce only part of it:

From an authority figure:

I know that many of us are concerned with the current ‘kicking woke ideology out of science’ rhetoric.  An open letter drafted by a number of scientists urges politicians to reject that:  ttps://  Please do sign and share as you think appropriate.

Note the urging to sign the letter, which, since it comes from a university official,  be considered a violation of the Kalven Principle of Institutional Neutrality if it were in Chicago.


Thank you for expressing an interest in signing the letter to the Prime Minister, Secretary of State for Science, Innovation and Technology and Chairman of the Conservative Party, regarding their position on ‘kicking woke ideology out of science’.

The text of the letter is given below. This text has been generated collaboratively by scientists from different disciplines, people with expertise in the relationship between science and Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI), and those with lived experience of marginalisation. Some have signed the letter, while other valued contributers have felt unable to sign publically. A fully referenced PDF version of the text is available at Open Letter to UK Government.

Here’s a bit of the letter. You can see the full text at the link.

Dear Prime Minister and Secretary of State for Science, Innovation and Technology,

We are writing to express our anger and disappointment at the speech given by the Secretary of State for Science, Innovation and Technology at the Conservative Party Conference 2023, and accompanying social media post. These state that government policy will be ‘kicking woke ideology out of science’ and that Conservatives are safeguarding scientific research from the denial of biology and the steady creep of political correctness.’ This was described as a plan “to depoliticise science”.

We are extremely concerned about both the content and possible implications of the speech, and what it says about the government’s views on both science policy and inclusion. We address these directly as follows:

And here’s the invidious bit involving denialism of scientific fact in the name of ideology (it’s apparently in response to the speech discussed above):

  • ‘Denial of biology’. From the Secretary of State’s speech it is clear that this refers to the government’s increasing adoption of policies that put the lives and wellbeing of trans people at risk. When it comes to sex determination it is simplistic binary arguments, such as those used by the Prime Minister himself, that deny biology. The biology of human sex is significantly more complex than just XX chromosomes = female and XY = male. There are multiple levels of “biological sex”, including genetic, anatomical, physiological and hormonal, which may not align with each other 11,12. Even within genetic definitions of sex, there are multiple interacting genes involved in complex networks 11,12. Sex determination at birth is on the basis of external genitalia, so does not consider the multiple factors contributing to “biological sex”. Additionally, up to 1.7% of the population have Differences in Sex Development (DSD) or are intersex 11–13. To appeal to “biological sex” as the Secretary of State has done is over-simplistic, unscientific and exclusionary rhetoric under the pretence of objectivity 14. Furthermore, as the Secretary of State acknowledges, biological sex and personal/social gender identity are distinct. At least 0.5% of the UK population identify as a different gender to their sex registered at birth 15. Combining DSD, intersex, non-binary and trans communities, this represents nearly 1.5 million people in the UK that the government implies should be excluded from participating in biomedical, sports science and other research. Research in many contexts does not need to (nor should) restrict itself to a binary definition of sex or gender, and can be inclusive of intersex, non-binary and/or trans participants without losing scientific rigour. The Secretary of State directly criticises initiatives such as the Scottish Chief Statistician’s guidance with respect to sex and gender 16, but such pragmatic advice ensures accuracy in data collection and research design, and alignment with legislation including the Equality Act 2010 and the Data Protection Act 2018. We find it disturbing that over-simplistic or scientifically illiterate arguments about complex biological systems are being used to stoke so-called culture wars and make the UK increasingly hostile towards people identifying as intersex, non-binary and/or trans. Reductive and discredited biological models have been used to underpin historical and contemporary human rights abuses through scientific racism and eugenics 17,18, and have no place in modern scientific inquiry.

Virtually everything in this section is a distortion or outright lie. First, if you’re defining male and female, then you don’t use chromosomal complement, even in humans, but rather determine whether someone has the equipment to make small mobile gametes (males) versus large immobile gametes (females). Determining someone’s sex is as simple as that, though the other stuff, like chromosomes, genitalia, and hormones, are highly correlated with biological sex. It’s a big mistake, but a deliberate one, to conflate the definition of sex, which shows that sex is indeed a binary, with the correlates of sex, which are bimodal and almost binary, but could be called “strongly bimodal.”

The “it’s complicated” argument floated above is made for only one purpose, and that purpose is outlined in the first sentence:

From the Secretary of State’s speech it is clear that this refers to the government’s increasing adoption of policies that put the lives and wellbeing of trans people at risk.

No, the “simplistic binary notion of sex”, which happens to be true, does NOT put the lives and wellbeing of trans people at risk. Biological truth doesn’t have the ability to do that. What would risk the lives and well being of trans people is true transphobia: the fear and hatred of trans people that could translate into mistreatment and denial of their fundamental rights. That’s a question of morality, not biological fact.

And this bit is wrong in three ways:

Additionally, up to 1.7% of the population have Differences in Sex Development (DSD) or are intersex 11–13. To appeal to “biological sex” as the Secretary of State has done is over-simplistic, unscientific and exclusionary rhetoric under the pretence of objectivity 14. Furthermore, as the Secretary of State acknowledges, biological sex and personal/social gender identity are distinct. At least 0.5% of the UK population identify as a different gender to their sex registered at birth 15. Combining DSD, intersex, non-binary and trans communities, this represents nearly 1.5 million people in the UK that the government implies should be excluded from participating in biomedical, sports science and other research.

Once again, we see exaggeration of the proportion of people who don’t fall into the sex binary. It is at most 0.018%, not 1.7%, the latter a frequently-seen  and erroneous figure based on wonky data from Anne Fausto-Sterling, a figure that even she retracted later.

Second, trans people are not the same as intersexes. Trans people are, most often, people of one of the two sexes who want to assume the persona of a member of the other sex. The sex binary has nothing to do with invalidating trans people; in fact, trans people, being of one sex but wishing to be of the other, demonstrate the binary nature of sex.

Third, except for participation in sports, I don’t understand how the 0.018% of people who are true intersex, or people of different genders (a social construct) are “excluded from participating in biomedical and other research.” Perhaps the tiny number of true hermaphrodites would be excluded from being in the category “male” or “female”, but they could still be subject to biomedical research.  As for sports, well, transwomen should not compete with biological women in athletics, and that’s the one “exclusion” I support.

The people who are circulating this letter are damaging science by denying scientific truth, as well as using outmoded data that we all know is wrong. They also damage the debate over trans people by pretending that their treatment must somehow depend on whether there’s a sex binary. Once again I’ll say it: the binary nature of human sex has no bearing on the debate about the rights and treatment of trans people. 

To say that the sex binary is “overly simplistic” or “scientifically illiterate” is to brand oneself an idiot.  If this reflects the conventional wisdom of the Labour Party (for the attacks above are on positions apparently espoused by two Tories), then Labour is in trouble.  First they got in trouble by being anti-Semitic, now they’ll get into more trouble by being anti-biology.

The perils of politicized science

January 21, 2023 • 12:30 pm

The American Enterprise Institute (AEI), a conservative think tank in Washington, D.C. held a panel last Thursday on “The Perils of Politicized Science”. (You can go to the website by clicking on the screenshot below, but I’ll put the entire video at bottom (1 hour, 41 minutes). No beefing about AEI: who else but a conservative organization would even host a discussion like this? It’s the ideas, not the venues, that are important.

I haven’t watched all of it yet, but will. Of the first two I’ve watched, Jussim is particularly energetic and engaging, as he tends to be. But I haven’t seen Satel, Krylov, or Mills.

The panelists certainly have street cred.

Sally Satel, senior fellow at AEI, former psychiatrist and teacher
Wilfred Reilly of Kentucky State University, who participated via Zoom. He’s a political scientist.
Lee Jussim of Rutgers University psychologist
Anna Krylov, University of Southern California, theoretical chemistry
M. Anthony Mills, Senior Fellow, AEI.

The topic, according to Anna, was the different ways that politics interacts with science and how politics and supposedly science-based policies are damaging science.  This differs a bit from the YouTube description, and because her summary was made after the panel, I take it to be more accurate.

So here you go:

My interview in L’Express about “progressive” attacks on science

December 27, 2022 • 9:15 am

I was interviewed about a month ago by Thomas Mahler and Laetitia Strauch -Bonart for the French magazine L’Express; the topic was attacks on the Left coming from science. (The title translates as “Big interview. Jerry Coyne: ‘The attacks against science from the left are worrisome.'”)

If you can read French, the link below is free (click screenshot). If you want a not-so-great Google translation into English, simply contact me.




More Kiwi missteps: New Zealand tries to infuse spirituality into chemistry (and electrical engineering)

December 7, 2022 • 11:30 am

Here are a few items about the impending invasion of New Zealand’s “indigenous knowledge” into the chemistry curriculum (the government has decided to give the indigenous way of knowing, Mātauranga Māori (MM), status coequal to that of modern science in the classroom, and also bring about equity in funding of projects incorporating MM.

First, we have a very sensible article by Michael Matthews in last March’s issue in the HPS &ST Newsletter (“HPS” stands, I think, for the history and philosophy of science, but I’m not sure where the “ST” comes from.) Anyway, the piece is worth reading, for Matthews isn’t a huge critic of MM, but seems fair. (I’ve provided a link to the postmodern concept of “constructivism”.)

There are educational, cultural, ethical, and political reasons for the teaching and learning of local ethnosciences. But these reasons are all independent of the scientificity, or otherwise, of Māori or any other ethnoscience. The placement of ethnosciences in the school or university science programme depends upon confusing the first sets of reasons with scientificity. Indigenous knowledge systems or, more loosely, ways of knowing can be respected, championed, and learnt from without them needing to be called ‘science’. Much less deemed the equivalent of science. This should be a simple matter to understand, but the influence of constructivism in NZ education and philosophy, and the extension of post modernism in so many academic and cultural areas, has meant that this simple point has not been widely understood.

Click to read: Matthews’ piece begins on page 7:

Because the MM concept of “Mauri” (life spark or essence, said to be present in all matter) is increasingly vetted as something to put into science, I wanted to give an excerpt from Matthews’ piece about how it’s being used not just in education, but in public policy, and at taxpayers’ expense (bolding is mine):

The correct, clear-headed appraisal of Mātauranga Māori has not just cultural and educational consequences, but economic ones. Consider the once-routine monitoring of river, lake and drinking water quality. Local governments would periodically test for bacteria, acidity, nutrient levels, biochemical oxygen demand (BoD), oxygen levels and sundry other, up to 22, agreed upon and measurable factors. The Taranaki Regional Council, which includes Mt Egmont and the city of New Plymouth, has for decades done this monitoring at 13 sites. But as of last year, the Mātauranga Māori notion of Mauri has been added to the determinants of water quality and will be so monitored. With national government assistance, NZD4.95M has been set aside for the 5-year task.

Initially this might sound nice, and culturally sensitive, bringing Western science and Māori spirituality together. But what is mauri? The Te Aka Māori Dictionary provides this definition:

1. Mauri (noun) life principle, life force, vital essence, spe18 march 2022 hps&st newsletter cial nature, a material symbol of a life principle, source of emotions – the essential quality and vitality of a being or entity. Also used for a physical object, individual, ecosystem or social group in which this essence is located.

Gisborne Council defines mauri in their Tairawhiti Resource Management Plan as ‘essential life force or principle, a metaphysical quality inherent in all things, both animate and inanimate’. The NZ Peak Body for Youth Development (AraTaiohi) elaborates:

Mauri is the life spark or essence inherent in all living things that has been passed down from ancestors through whakapapa. Mauri affects and is affected by the surrounding environment. It is a motivating force and also encapsulates a process of change from Mauri moe, a state where potential is as yet unrealised; through Mauri oho, sparks of interest and the realisation that change is possible; to Mauri ora, an action-oriented stage of striving towards full potential

Unlike the 22 generally accepted ‘scientific’ indices of water quality, all of which have appropriate measuring techniques and instruments, there are precisely zero techniques, much less instruments, available for measuring mauri in water or even in water environs. So, at the end of five years and with the expenditure of nearly five million NZD, how does anyone know whether mauri has gone up, down, or remained constant? And, of course, once Taranaki has succeeded in getting grant money, it would be expected that the other ten councils in the country will do the same thing. Why not test mauri levels in the waters of Otago, Southland, Auckland, and so on? There is nothing in MM to dissuade councils from seeking such funds, and indeed MM supporters, or lobby, can be expected to push for such research funds.

Matthews says this about a “mauri compass”, supposedly a way to measure mauri, but really just a written “set of conversation starters:

. . . The developers say: We are not trying to define mauri. But it [the compass] is a tool to help people articulate it, a good conversation starter with trigger questions for conversations with people around their waterways.

Matthews goes on, showing the weakness of trying to use mauri as any kind of quantity to estimate:

Such conversations do no harm and can do some good, but the process is a long way from scientific measurement. Feng Shui consultants charge money for ascertaining that a dwelling near water, in the sun, protected from wind, not overlooking a cemetery has good chi (Matthews 2019, chap.4). Manifestly, the chi appellation does not add anything to what is already known. Such a dwelling will be pleasant to live in. Indicators are that mauri is in the same situation.

It is a relatively easy task to show that mauri is in the same non-scientific league as Eastern, and increasingly Western, chi beliefs (Matthews 2019). And as with chi, the ever-present danger is that mauri commitment becomes pseudoscientific; an accessory for hucksters and rent seekers. ‘Life sparks’, ‘life forces’, and ‘living essences’ have all the hallmarks of well known, and discredited, Vitalism in the history of science.

As well as direct costs involved in monitoring mauri, there are oft-ignored ‘lost opportunity costs’. What else in the Taranaki Council area could NZD4.95M be spent on: Women’s shelters? Public housing? Community transport? Infant health clinics? Expanded library service? These are unfunded while a fantasy is pursued.

So much for the life force—a “fantasy”. But the fantasy of mauri is invading all of the sciences, and presumably will be taught in science classes, even though it’s pretty much the same thing as “chi”. Take a look at the set of chemistry and biology standards below put out by a NZ government organization, the National Certificate of Educational Achievement. You can look at the “Big Ideas” yourself, or just see the one I’ve highlighted below (click on either screenshot):

Look! They bring up mauri again. But look at the other “Big Ideas” on that page: more numinous junk MM stuff.  All particles have life force! This is perilously close to panpsychism:

Yes, folks, that’s a proposed bit of the science curriculum in New Zealand.

Below is more invasion of mauri into chemistry in New Zealand. Fortunately, I needn’t go over this, as Nick Matzke has already covered this very article (click to read), as well as a talk by Kilmartin, over at The Panda’s Thumb website. Nick also adduces more intrusions of the numious mauri into other places, even electrical engineering. I’m glad that Nick is on this distortion of real science in NZ, as I’d hate to be the only American banging on about this.

But wait—there’s more! Here’s mauri in electricity (the figure comes from Nick’s piece; the arrow is mine).  This is bizarre—an unnecessary intrusion of spirituality into wiring!

Finally, below you can read a new article from the New Zealand Herald. The “makeover” of science, of course, involves embedding more MM and more indigenous “science” into the whole science sector, not just the curriculum:

There’s also cautious optimism the three-year makeover will tackle long-standing diversity gaps across our universities and institutes – particularly among under-represented Māori and Pasifika researchers.

The proposed revamp, outlined in a white paper launched by Research, Science and Innovation (RSI) Minister Dr Ayesha Verrall this evening, would come in three major phases.

The first would be an overhaul of the workforce itself, including an expansion of research fellowships and applied training schemes, along with another programme aimed at attracting more international talent to New Zealand.

“There will be a stronger focus on people, with an emphasis on building sustainable and fulfilling career paths in science, improving diversity and addressing precarious employment,” she said.

Alongside that, the Government will set out how Te Tiriti o Waitangi [The Treaty of Waitangi, often used as a reason to give MM status coequal to science] should be better embedded in the system, with a statement to be released later.

The second phase, beginning in 2024, would set yet-to-be determined research priorities that tackled the most important issues facing New Zealand.

Well, I can tell you, if the government still insists on equating MM with modern science, or on trying to blend spiritual concepts of the Māori “way of knowing” into science and technology education, it is not going to “attract more international talent” to New Zealand. In fact it’s the opposite: the infusion of MM, which includes religion and spirituality—stuff like mauri—into science teaching, will in the end drive good researchers out of New Zealand.

A New Zealand teacher writes the government protesting a proposed curriculum asserting the equality of indigenous “ways of knowing” with science

December 1, 2022 • 9:00 am

I’ve often written about how New Zealand’s government and school authorities are determined to teach the indigenous way of knowing,”Mātauranga Māori (“MM”), which I’ve often discussed, as coequal to modern science in science classes.  While many (like me) maintain that MM should be taught in sociology or anthropology classes as an important part of national culture, I vehemently object to it being taught as coequal to modern science.

That’s because MM, though some of the entire system contains “practical knowledge” taken from observation and trial and error, also contains many things that aren’t science-y at all: ideology, morality, religion, legend and superstition. Teaching the two systems as coequal would not only confuse students about what science is, but also confer coequality where it isn’t warranted. Even if you just teach the parts of MM that encompass practical knowledge, it’s important to show how this differs from the systematic methods and tools used by modern science to find truth. The efforts of the NZ government and schools will, in the end, doom science in New Zealand. I’m not exaggerating when I say that this is my worry

(I’ll add that MM advocates, when they claim empirical knowledge, often do so unscientifically. Their remedies are often untested, and, regarding history they have claimed, falsely, that the Polynesians, ancestors of the Māori were the discoverers of Antarctica in the 7th century AD. [see also here]. This is untrue, and based on both legend and a mistranslation; Antarctica was first seen by the Russians in 1820.)

Because equating MM with other “ways of knowing” like modern science is a way of valorizing the indigenous people, and because there’s no government more “progressive” (in the pejorative sense) than New Zealand’s, efforts by me and others to stop the impending dilution of science with MM are almost surely doomed. It’s even worse, for criticizing what the government is doing is seen as anti-Māori racism. It’s not: it’s just distinguishing between a real way of knowing and a dubious “way of knowing”. As preacher Mike Aus said after he publicly renounced his faith at an FFRF meeting,

“There are not different ways of knowing. There is knowing and not knowing, and those are the only two options in this world.”

Thus, critics of teaching indigenous ways of knowing in science class critics are forced to shut up, for raising one’s voice not only leads to pile-ons and petitions, but has actually cost teachers their jobs. Today I’m posting a letter written by a critical teacher who dares not give their name for fear of being fired, but who’s sufficiently courageous to let their views be known, including a letter they wrote about the MM/science controversy to various government ministers (all anonymously, of course, as this person wants to keep their job!). The teacher was disturbed at a government lesson plan to equate modern science with Māori empirical knowledge, and I also show a bit of that lesson plane.

So. . . .

A friend of mine in New Zealand got a letter from a secondary school teacher who went to a meeting in they were given proposed government curriculum for integrating modern science (which they call “Western science”, abbreviated “WS”) with the indigenous “way of knowing”.  The curriculum, which you can have by emailing me, is for “year 9” students, who are 13 years old.

The curriculum tries (but fails) to take the superstition out of MM, so that the part of MM that’s supposedly co-taught with “western science” is actually “Mātauranga Pūtaiao” (“MP”)—practical knowledge related to the natural world. The plan, an outline of the future curriculum from which I’ve taken excerpts, demands that we must consider MP equivalent to Western science (though they’re also claimed to be different in ways that aren’t explained).  As you’ll see, though, they haven’t managed to keep the numinous bits out of MP, and they don’t attempt to show what’s unique about MP as opposed to WS.

Everything below is reproduced with the permission of the principals, and, as I said, I will be glad to send you the whole curriculum plan—an 11-page pdf—if you want to see it.

Here’s what the teacher wrote to my friend, who then forwarded the teacher’s letter to me with permission to see it and reproduce it here.

I have attached a curriculum unit plan to this email that was distributed last week to school teachers in my region during a teacher-only day dedicated to the curriculum re-alignment. It illustrates how a typical school is attempting to integrate mātauranga Māori in the science curriculum. Rather distressingly, it is quite political in how it presents the relationship of science to mātauranga Māori.

I have also included a letter I have written to government ministers that illustrates the potential for confusion to occur when local schools are left to interpret the implications of such integration without authoritative guidance from the Ministry of Education. I have written this anonymously, both for the benefit of the school from which the document originates as well as for the sake of my own career as a teacher. Within the teaching profession, there is considerable confusion over what mātauranga Māori is and how it relates to science.

Finally, here’s the letter the teacher wrote to government ministers (bolding is the teacher’s). It’s quite eloquent and clear.

Good day,

I am a science teacher writing from a regional city on the South Island. This past week, my colleagues and I attended a government-funded day of professional development, the purpose of which was to discuss the re-alignment of the new NCEA science curriculum with other teachers from the region. Among the topics discussed were mātauranga Māori and its integration into the science curriculum. As part of this discussion, the host school that was facilitating the meeting distributed resources outlining how they were teaching (or intended to teach) mātauranga Māori and science. I have included a copy of the unit plan that was distributed during the meeting to illustrate the concerns I will outline below. Of particular interest is how the realignment of the curriculum could enable epistemic relativism to be introduced into what should be a world-leading system of publicly-funded education. The highly decentralized nature of the NZ education system, coupled with the vague wording of the proposed curriculum by the Ministry of Education, introduces the possibility that local schools will ultimately be left to devise science programs based on faulty premises and questionable interpretations of the relationship of mātauranga Māori to science. I have attached the unit plan presented by the host school of this meeting as evidence of this potential.

First among my concerns is the presentation of science in this school’s unit plan as a “western” knowledge system. This is peculiar (to say the least), given that science is a global endeavor drawing on a toolkit with contributors from many cultures and ages. To call science a “western” knowledge system is to ignore the contributions of many cultures from places such as India, the middle-east, China, and the Maori themselves. For example, Arabic and Indian scholars made fundamental contributions to the development of mathematics, which is the decision-making language of science. Labeling science as “western” makes as much sense as dividing mathematics into categories of “Arabic,” “Chinese,” or “Roman.” It may be true that over the past century many contributions to science have originated from a few countries in the so-called “west;” but that point has more to do with economic forces and the vagaries of historical chance, rather than cultural “ownership” over a methodology. Moreover, the Māori themselves used aspects of science (observation, pattern-seeking) as part of their exploration of Aotearoa [JAC: the Māori word for New Zealand]. Why can’t we simply celebrate the varied contributions of humanity to science and our knowledge of the natural world, rather than create an ideological division that does not exist in the first place?

The unit plan also makes the claim that both “knowledge systems” have equal authority. Again, this statement is based on a faulty premise and false dichotomy. To teach children that science is a “western” knowledge system is to undermine the idea of what science is. Ultimately, science is a collection of methodological tools and approaches that allow us to reliably distinguish and relate cause, effect, and chance. Put simply, science has predictive power in how humans relate to the natural world. In everyday life, no one practicing science (or using its products) cares about cultural attribution or the so-called “knowledge system” it arose from. If an idea or technique works in practice and has predictive power, it is accepted as part of our understanding of the natural world. To take an example from history: Polynesian, European, or Chinese sailors from centuries ago would no doubt have told us that there are two types of navigation: the sort that gets you where you are going and the sort that gets you dead. No one cared where your technique came from: if it worked, it was adopted. Categorically, scientific knowledge is either descriptive of our objective reality or it is not.

I would also draw your attention to the first lesson in the attached unit plan, whose focus is the subject of Maori gods and “their powers.” Now, I assume that this is a lesson on how people in the past have explained natural phenomena by appealing to supernatural explanations. As mātauranga Māori is a living knowledge system and is intended to be taught within the science curriculum, it no doubt has replaced such concepts with ideas based on naturalistic explanations. However, I cannot confirm this because the Ministry of Education has not provided teachers with an authoritative reference on how these two systems are similar or different. The document presented by our meeting facilitator claims that no one system has “authority.” If that is the case, science teachers need a clearly articulated vision of how these differences are to be taught in the classroom.

Thank you for your attention to this matter. I am sending you this letter and the attached example from a local school’s curriculum to illustrate the potential for confusion that has arisen from the inclusion of mātauranga Maori in the science curriculum. Is the Ministry of Education intending to publish and distribute a detailed and authoritative guide on how schools should integrate mātauranga Maori in relation to science? As illustrated by the material presented at the meeting I recently attended, there is considerable potential for disagreement without ministry guidance.I would ask that you raise this issue with the Minister of Education as a matter of urgency given the proposed timeline for the implementation of the new curriculum. Both teachers and students deserve clarity and a set of authoritative guidelines on how mātauranga Maori and science are to be taught together. Without such guidelines, teachers will be left to interpret how these systems relate and how to teach them as a single subject (as illustrated by the example unit plan I have attached to this letter).

It is unfortunate that I must write to you anonymously. In the present climate, my intent could be misconstrued or mischaracterized if I were to put my name to this letter. Furthermore, my career as a teacher could suffer if I were to air these concerns publicly.

Kind regards,

A concerned teacher

Below are a few screenshots from the 11-page proposed document.

Here’s how the lesson starts: a “warm up activity” that teaches the 13 years old about “the Maori Gods and their powers”. Are they going to mention that there’s no evidence for the existence of these gods? If not, then they shouldn’t be mentioned, for this is not science but religion. But of course they won’t do that. Thus the confusion between MM and science starts at the outset of the course. Do they warm up the students by teaching about the “Western gods and their powers.” Of course not! Science is a godless activity, so get this stuff out of the curriculum!


Part of the level 3 assessment on page 10 says: “Understands that Māori have always been scientists, and that MP and WS are different.” Are Māori unique in this regard, i.e., did they alone among indigenous peoples came up with science, or does this apply to all indigenous people? The former is rather racist, while the second dilutes science to only that derived from observing the natural environment.

Note as well that they explain differences and similarities between science and the empirical bits of MM, but don’t say what those similarities and differences are. Further, they don’t explain “the importance of multiple perspectives.” Any perspective that is empirically correct is part of science.  And just as not all “westerners” aren’t scientists, so not all Māori are scientists. This is gobbledygook in the cause of inclusion.

Week 5 includes the story of Maui and Aoraki, although it looks like the Youtube video link no longer works. The tale of Maui and Aoraki is in fact the creation myth of the Māori , describing how two of the several gods created the North and South Islands. Why is this in the curriculum? Is the curriculum also going to describe the Western Biblical creation myth as outlined in Genesis, complete with God, Adam, Eve, and a talking serpent?

Whakapapa” is a numinous concept that relates to the connection of all things, both earthly and spiritual. That, too, doesn’t belong in a “science” curriculum, but in an anthropology class.

Below we see again the flat assertion—one that the teacher emphasizes above—that WS and MP, though not exactly the same (they don’t say how), are of equal “authority and status”. Can you imagine half of a 9th-form science class devoted to all of modern science, and the other half devoted to MP, which includes things like Polynesian navigation (not a Māori development) and when, exactly, the Maori pick their berries and catch their eels? Yes, the latter bits are “empirical knowledge” deriving from trial and error, but to give these things authority equal to all of modern physics, chemistry, biology, and mathematics is a fool’s errand. But such is the government of New Zealand, heavily “progressive” and pressured by the Māori and their sympathizers to give local ways of knowing a status equal to what “Western” science has given us in the last four centuries. This includes the claim that untested remedies involving herbs and spiritual chanting are just as good as modern medicine (see here, here, and here). (I hate using the words “Western” science, as the term is meant to denigrate modern science by implying it’s a “colonialist” enterprise.)

Have a look. If you want the entire curriculum (and some of it is okay), email me.

I feel sorry for nearly everyone involved in this sad tale: the New Zealand government, in thrall to the indigenous people to the extent that it will destroy science education; the Māori themselves, who will be given not only a false view of science but an education that will hold them back; the teachers, forced to teach ludicrous propositions and must keep their mouths shut about it; and all the people of New Zealand, who will be shorted on science education. In the end, that will hold science back in one of the countries I love the most. And that is ineffably sad.

Stephen Meyer in Newsweek: Three scientific discoveries point to God. As usual, his claims are misleading.

July 15, 2022 • 9:30 am

Stephen Meyer is an intelligent-design creationist who has spent his career trying to squelch the teaching of evolution in the U.S. and advancing the big mission of his employer, the Discovery Institute (he’s director of the Center for Science and Culture): debunking naturalism and materialism in favor of religion, preferably Christianity.

Meyer has managed to con the right-wingnuts at Newsweek into publishing the article below, which list three scientific discoveries that, says Meyer, point directly to God. They’re apparently the subject of his new book (published by HarperOne, the religious wing of Harper), Return of the God Hypothesis: Three Discoveries that Reveal the MInd Behind the Universe. If you go to its Amazon site, you find it highly lauded by those looking for any reason to believe in God. Since that is most Americans, these books usually get high ratings and sell respectably.

But,in truth, Meyer’s “Discoveries” have been long known, and have been debunked insofar as there are more plausible, naturalistic, and non-Goddy explanations for all of them.

Moreover, before we start accepting the God hypothesis—note that Meyer explicitly calls the Intelligent Designer “God”—he has (as Hitchens used to say) “all his work before him.”  For even if the three examples pointed to an intelligence operating in the Universe, that doesn’t mean it’s God, much less the Christian God. As the Discovery Institute used to say before its mask slipped, the Designer could be any form of  unknown cosmic intelligence, including space aliens.  Before you decide that an observation confirms the God Hypothesis instead of the Science (naturalistic) Hypothesis, you better show us that there’s a God that conforms to traditional belief. Otherwise it could confirm yet another supposition: the Xenu Hypothesis.

I’ll deal below with the features of the Universe, not mentioned by Meyer, that show how the Universe fails to conform to what we’d expect if there were a God.

Click to read.

Meyer begins by bemoaning the well-known decline in belief in God in America, which, as I noted recently, has fallen to 81% from 92% just 11 years ago. Meyer blames this on atheistic scientists:

Perhaps surprisingly, our survey discovered that the perceived message of science has played a leading role in the loss of faith. We found that scientific theories about the unguided evolution of life have, in particular, led more people to reject belief in God than worries about suffering, disease, or death. It also showed that 65 percent of self-described atheists and 43 percent of agnostics believe “the findings of science [generally] make the existence of God less probable.”

It’s easy to see why this perception has proliferated. In recent years, many scientists have emerged as celebrity spokesmen for atheism. Richard Dawkins, Lawrence Krauss, Bill Nye, Michael Shermer, the late Stephen Hawking, and others have published popular books arguing that science renders belief in God unnecessary or implausible. “The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if, at bottom, there is no purpose, no design… nothing but blind, pitiless indifference,” Dawkins famously wrote.

This cannot  be allowed to stand, and so Meyer goes back and recycles three old chestnuts that, he argues, points to a designer who just happens to be God. They tell, Meyer says, “a decidedly God-friendly story”. (He’s totally unbiased here!)

I’ll give alternative naturalistic explanations for each of the three “proofs of God”. We don’t know the materialistic answers for sure, but at least the scientific explanations are in principle testable, and there is some evidence behind them.

Meyer’s words are indented.

1.) The Big Bang. 

First, scientists have discovered that the physical universe had a beginning. This finding, supported by observational astronomy and theoretical physics, contradicts the expectations of scientific atheists, who long portrayed the universe as eternal and self-existent—and, therefore, in no need of an external creator.

Evidence for what scientists call the Big Bang has instead confirmed the expectations of traditional theists. Nobel laureate Arno Penzias, who helped make a key discovery supporting the Big Bang theory, has noted the obvious connection between its affirmation of a cosmic beginning and the concept of divine creation. “The best data we have are exactly what I would have predicted, had I nothing to go on but the five books of Moses…[and] the Bible as a whole,” writes Penzias.

Before we get to the alternate explanations, let’s look at what Genesis I says about the creation (King James version):

In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.

And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.

And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.

And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness.

And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day.

And God said, Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters

And God made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament: and it was so.

And God called the firmament Heaven. And the evening and the morning were the second day.

It’s a stretch to harmonize this with what we know of the Big Bang, since there appears to have been water, Earth was created before light, and light was created before the “firmament” (presumably stars like the sun), and, importantly, before the Night and the Day, which are caused by the rotation of the earth. And that water deeply disturbs me. Is it metaphorical water or real water? The only thing that harmonizes with the Big Bang here is light (presumably accompanying the Big Bang) followed by the firmament. (And yet earth was created before the light and the Big Bang!) And later on, we see that the plants are created before the stars and the Sun. It’s a big mess. There are actually several sequences of creation here, and they don’t harmonize.

As for Penzias, he apparently never read the “five books of Moses”, because the creation story is absolutely contradicted by evolution, for which we have tons of evidence. (I wrote a book about that.). That’s why creationists and their subspecies Intelligent Design advocates fight against evolution. If Penzias’s statement is correct, he was a theological ignoramus.

The naturalistic alternatives to the Big Bang for the origin of the Universe involve a number of theories that you can find here, here, here, and in other places.  Now there’s little doubt that the Big Bang occurred; the question is whether this is how our present Universe began, and whether there are other universes originating in similar (or other) ways. The alternatives include a pure quantum fluctuation (“nothing is unstable” as Krauss noted), Brane models, and eternal inflation, in which different universes are created at intervals (the “multiverse”). If you ask most cosmologists, they’d sign on to the Big Bang, but whether that completely describes the origin of our universe, or is an incomplete description of our universe (and there could be other universes), is something we don’t know. If the Big Bang did occur, which seems likely since we have tons of evidence for it, then that shows only that the Universe began, not how it began. If you say, “God did it,” that stops all research on how the Universe began, and it’s not an answer, just a fill in for “we don’t know” based on people who want to believe in God. Finally, the Bible is a really lousy description of how the Universe, the Earth, and then life on Earth came to be.

2.) Fine tuning:

Second, discoveries from physics about the structure of the universe reinforce this theistic conclusion. Since the 1960s, physicists have determined that the fundamental physical laws and parameters of our universe are finely tuned, against all odds, to make our universe capable of hosting life. Even slight alterations of many independent factors—such as the strength of gravitational or electromagnetic attraction, or the initial arrangement of matter and energy in the universe—would have rendered life impossible. Scientists have discovered that we live in a kind of “Goldilocks Universe,” or what Australian physicist Luke Barnes calls an extremely “Fortunate Universe.”

Not surprisingly, many physicists have concluded that this improbable fine-tuning points to a cosmic “fine-tuner.” As former Cambridge astrophysicist Sir Fred Hoyle argued, “A common-sense interpretation of the data suggests that a super-intellect has monkeyed with physics” to make life possible.

First, we do not know how “fine-tuned” the Universe is, and whether other parameters might also allow a kind if life to exist. Second, if there is a multiverse, alternative universes may have different physical properties, and we happen to live in one that permits life.

In the 8.5-minute debate video below, Sean Carroll gives five arguments in favor of naturalism and against the theistic argument for God from fine-tuning (the latter he calls a “terrible argument”). In fact, he shows that only naturalism supports the idea that life is permitted by certain physical parameters, for God could have done anything that he wanted regardless of the laws of physics. Finally, Carroll argues that the physical properties of the Universe are not those predicted by an a priori theistic theory, but comport better with the predictions of naturalism. (One of these is that theism predicts that “God should be easy to find.”) That is an important argument against Meyer’s thesis!

3.) Intelligently designed features of organisms.  This is just the same old ID argument reprised:

Third, molecular biology has revealed the presence in living cells of an exquisite world of informational nanotechnology. These include digital code in DNA and RNA—tiny, intricately constructed molecular machines which vastly exceed our own digital high technology in their storage and transmission capabilities. And even Richard Dawkins has acknowledged that “the machine code of the genes is uncannily computer-like” — implying, it would seem, the activity of a master programmer at work the origin of life. At the very least, the discoveries of modern biology are not what anyone would have expected from blind materialistic processes.

Saying that the “machine code of genes” has features of computer code is not, as Meyer argues, evidence for a designer, and Dawkins would be the last to argue that.  In fact, the discoveries of modern biology, in particular the jury-rigged features of life (just taking humans, the recurrent laryngeal nerve, the swelling of the male prostate, and so on), show that the designer was not intelligent. But features like the recurrent laryngeal nerve, which in giraffes is about 15 feet longer than it should be if it were intelligently designed, support the evolutionary origin of these features, for they make sense under the theory of evolution. I cannot think of a single feature of organisms, nor can other non-ID biologists, that could not in any way have evolved by naturalistic processes. Behe and his DI friends have suggested several in the past, like blood-clotting and the bacterial flagellum, but all of these have been shown to have possible origins through naturalistic processes including natural selection. True, we don’t understand the origin of some features, but the most parsimonious explanation for these is that we don’t have the historical evidence (we weren’t there when they evolved), not that we should give up trying to explain them scientifically, go to church, and thank the Lord God for his Intelligent Design.

I reiterate Carroll’s thesis that there are many aspects of the Universe that testify against the existence of a Biblical God, including His absence when we should have been able to detect his presence (Stenger’s argument), the unexplained existence of physical evil—evidence for naturalism and against theism—and the arrogant view that the whole universe was created as a stage for the dramas one of millions of species on one of a gazillion planets in our Universe.

Wail about the secularism of America as he does, Meyer is not going to stop the relentless rise of unbelief in the West.  And he doesn’t mention that one reason people are leaving churches and giving up God is simply what I said in the above paragraph: there are many more ways that the God hypothesis doesn’t make sense than that it does make sense. People simply have grown up and stopped believing fairy tales. Science is one reason for this, but there are also others, like the fact that people in the world are generally better off, both morally and materially, than they were in the past, and religion depends on people’s lack of well-being, the sense that no human or human state cares about them.

The unresolved question that I have is why Newsweek purveys this palaver to its audience. It is scientifically irresponsible to mislead readers this way without giving the naturalistic counterarguments.

h/t: Steve

Once again: A misguided article on why the theory of evolution is obsolete

June 29, 2022 • 11:00 am

This article in the Guardian really says nothing new beyond what a dozen articles have said already: “There are things we know about evolution that Darwin never imagined, and we’ve made many discoveries that weren’t part of the ‘modern synthetic theory of evolution’ forged in the Thirties and Forties.”  I’ve posted a ton about these issues already, many of which are said to form an “Extended Evolutionary Synthesis”, or EES. It turns out that yes, things like the neutral theory and epigenetics weren’t imagined by Darwin, who knew nothing about heredity, or even by the great Theodosius Dobzhansky, but the exponents of the EES sometimes try to pretend that it’s more than an extension of evolutionary biology, but a Kuhnian “revolution” mandating a “new theory of evolution”. Indeed that’s what the article below maintains. (The answer to the headline question is “yes.”)

But in fact we do not need a new theory of evolution: the basic theory proposed by Darwin in 1859, which includes gradualism, variation, natural selection as a critical factor responsible for adaptation, splitting of lineages, and the resultant common ancestry of all species and individuals, still holds. But we know a lot more now, and most of it can easily be incorporated into evolutionary biology. In fact, if you look at evolution textbooks from a few years ago, you’ll find phenomena like epigenesis, the neutral theory, “niche construction”, plasticity, and the like not only discussed, but shown to have been part of discussions about evolution for half a century or more. Now they’re simply part of “evolutionary biology”, which, yes, has expanded, but not in a manner that mandates replacing the old theory. Like cosmology, we just add new stuff to the field as it turns up, and ditch the stuff that turns out to be wrong.

Yet the author, Stephen Buranyi, a Guardian science writer, cannot help himself from not only distorting the history of evolutionary biology, but arguing that evolutionary biology needs a thorough rehaul (It doesn’t, for it’s not like “Darwin was totally wrong!”) And Buranyi takes great delight in couching the scientific debate about the importance of various factors in organismal evolution as “a culture war.” That’s nuts, it’s just a normal debate in science, and the outcome hinges on facts, not ideology.

Click to read the piece.

There’s simply too much to criticize and correct here, so I’ll take just five of Buranyi’s misguided claims.

a.) We don’t understand how important evolutionary features developed, like the eye. It’s true that we don’t know the exact sequence in which some complex adaptations developed, and we won’t because we weren’t there. But we do know from the fossil record about how whales evolved from terrestrial hoofed ungulates over about 10 million years, and we have the fossils to show it. Ditto for many other evolutionary transitions, like from fish to amphibians. But by using the eye, Buranyi resurrects the old (and refuted) creationist criticism that “how could an eye possibly evolve in a stepwise fashion from a simple light-sensitive spot?” The implication is that our ignorance of how this actually happened means that something’s seriously wrong with evolutionary theory.

Actually, this problem was first considered (and in principle solved) by Darwin, and discussed more extensively by Richard Dawkins in several places (e.g., here). No, we don’t know exactly how and when it happened, but eyes evolved independently several times, and we have a plausible sequence about how one can go, via an evolutionary sequence of small adaptive steps, from a light-sensitive eyespot to the complex “camera eye” of vertebrates and cephalopods. And, using estimates of parameters, we can show that there was plenty of time for this to happen via selection. If we can do that, with each step being adaptive (and in fact, actually seen in species living today), then the evolution of the eye is not a difficulty for simple Darwinism.

In fact, in 1994 Nilsson and Pelger published a paper showing that, with conservative assumptions about mutation rates and selection, you could model the evolution of a camera eye from a light-sensitive spot in a few hundred thousand years. If you want a precis, read Dawkins’s Nature article about the paper: “The eye in a twinkling.”

I discuss this in a bit of detail because Buranyi cites the eye as one of our insuperable evolutionary problems:

You may recall the gist from school biology lessons. If a creature with poor eyesight happens to produce offspring with slightly better eyesight, thanks to random mutations, then that tiny bit more vision gives them more chance of survival. The longer they survive, the more chance they have to reproduce and pass on the genes that equipped them with slightly better eyesight. Some of their offspring might, in turn, have better eyesight than their parents, making it likelier that they, too, will reproduce. And so on. Generation by generation, over unfathomably long periods of time, tiny advantages add up. Eventually, after a few hundred million years, you have creatures who can see as well as humans, or cats, or owls.

This is the basic story of evolution, as recounted in countless textbooks and pop-science bestsellers. The problem, according to a growing number of scientists, is that it is absurdly crude and misleading.

For one thing, it starts midway through the story, taking for granted the existence of light-sensitive cells, lenses and irises, without explaining where they came from in the first place. Nor does it adequately explain how such delicate and easily disrupted components meshed together to form a single organ. And it isn’t just eyes that the traditional theory struggles with. “The first eye, the first wing, the first placenta. How they emerge. Explaining these is the foundational motivation of evolutionary biology,” says Armin Moczek, a biologist at Indiana University. “And yet, we still do not have a good answer. This classic idea of gradual change, one happy accident at a time, has so far fallen flat.”

Both Buranyi and Moczek are dead wrong. We know about light-sensitive pigments, and we know they exist in microorganisms that can use them to detect the presence of light, which is itself adaptive.  The meshing of the various components has been modeled, and we can see every posited step in the process instantiated as an adaptation in one or more living species. What we don’t know is when and in which order things happened. Nevertheless, we see a plausible order in nature and we can model the process without difficulty. To say that “the classical idea of gradual change has fallen flat” is just (pardon my Spanish) caca de vaca. Does Buranyi think the eye appeared as a single “macromutation”? (More on that issue later.) So his distortions of history—he doesn’t mention, for instance, the paper of Nilsson and Pelger—begin at the article’s outset.

b.) Plasticity is a profound evolutionary problem that was neglected by evolutionary biology. Plasticity refers to the ability of an organism’s genome to respond to different environments in different ways (usually adaptive), either permanently or reversibly. We get tans when there’s too much sun, and this protects us from UV damage. Many mammals grow long hair in the winter and lose it in the summer.  Arctic mammals can turn white in the winter and brown in the summer as a means of camouflage. Rotifers and other small organisms grow fish-deterring spines if they develop in water containing fish, and plants can alter their form depending on where they’re growing.

We’ve known this for decades, so the evolution of plasticity is not something that’s stumped evolutionists. It’s easy to envision a genome that can respond to different environments in different ways. (One fantastic example is how the same genome can produce a caterpilllar and then a butterfly depending on the environment and time of development.) All that’s required for plasticity to evolve is that there be reasonable chances that an organism can find itself in different environments, i.e., a decent probability that you’d find yourself in environments, A, B, C, or so on.  Wild cats that live in environments that go from hot to cold over the year (or over altitude), would have greater reproduction if they had genes that could induce hair growth when the weather is cold and hair loss when it gets warmer. For arctic hares, the probability that the environment will be white in winter and green/brown in summer is 100%, but the probability that we’ll be out in the sun enough to get a tan is lower than 100%. But it doesn’t have to be 100% if enough people are out in the hot sun and could get melanoma. That’s enough to keep the tanning response encoded in our genome.

Indeed, plasticity can even reveal genetic variation that can be subject to selection; this idea of “genetic assimilation” was discussed and demonstrated eighty years ago.

Yet Buranyi sees plasticity as another startling non-Darwinian, mysterious, and neglected phenomenon. He’s wrong, though he gives some cool examples of plasticity. His words (my bolding):

One of the most fascinating recent areas of research is known as plasticity, which has shown that some organisms have the potential to adapt more rapidly and more radically than was once thought. Descriptions of plasticity are startling, bringing to mind the kinds of wild transformations you might expect to find in comic books and science fiction movies.

. . . Plasticity doesn’t invalidate the idea of gradual change through selection of small changes, but it offers another evolutionary system with its own logic working in concert. To some researchers, it may even hold the answers to the vexed question of biological novelties: the first eye, the first wing. “Plasticity is perhaps what sparks the rudimentary form of a novel trait,” says Pfennig. [JAC: Pfennig is just guessing here.]

Plasticity is well accepted in developmental biology, and the pioneering theorist Mary Jane West-Eberhard began making the case that it was a core evolutionary force in the early 00s. And yet, to biologists in many other fields, it is virtually unknown. Undergraduates beginning their education are unlikely to hear anything about it, and it has still to make much mark in popular science writing.

What is the new “logic” involved in plasticity? The evolution of plasticity, like the examples Buranyi gives, simply follows the logic of natural selection acting when there are environmental conditions or changes that can be encountered with some frequency. In such a case it pays for your genome to evolve flexible adaptive responses to different environments.

As for the claim that students aren’t exposed to this, well, it’s sure in the evolution textbooks. I just pulled Doug Futuyma’s 1998 (third edition) textbook Evolutionary Biology off my shelf (it’s the one I used when I taught introductory evolution), and, sure enough, there’s a whole section on plasticity and “norms of reaction”, as they used to be known. (A norm of reaction is simply when a given genome can respond to different environments by producing different phenotypes.) Doug’s book was published nearly 25 years ago, and the phenomenon was discussed at length by others long before that.

c.) Biologists have unduly neglected macromutationism: the idea that a complex feature can come into being in a single step.  This was indeed a discussion in the 1930s and 1940s, with scientists like Richard Goldschmidt proposing a “hopeful monster” hypothesis: that major evolutionary features could come into being via a single mutation that affected many systems at once. To Goldschmidt and his followers, “mutationism” was considered an alternative to natural selection.  Ernst Mayr once told me that he heard Goldschmidt make this remark: “I firmly believe that the first creature considered a bird hatched from an egg laid by a creature considered a reptile.” (That implies a huge step rather than a gradualistic evolution of reptiles into birds.)

Macromutationism, though briefly revived by Steve Gould as part of “punctuated equilibrium” (see below), eventually lost plausibility for several reasons. First, it’s unlikely that a mutation could occur that would create a complex feature (or a new group, like birds) in one step, for there’s a very low probability that a coordinated and cooperative set of features could arise in one step. In fact, although we can see big “homeotic” mutations in the lab (like an eye developing on a wing, or a leg as part of an insect mouth), these are developmental anomalies that are maladaptive. More important, genetic dissection of even minor phenotypic changes that have occurred in nature, like the shape of insect genitalia, have repeatedly shown them to be based on several mutations of small effect. We have virtually no evidence for mutations of large effect being important in evolution.

Of course, even macromutations have to obey the rules of population genetics, so even if one occurred, it could not spread through a species without natural selection to drive it. That means, of course, that “mutationsm” is not an alternative to selection!

Finally, we have the data. The fossil record documenting major changes, like the evolution of birds, whales, amphibians, hominins and the like, show no such “macromutations”: we see a gradual change in phenotype from ancestor to descendant with different traits showing up at different times. Of course mutations do vary in size, but I can’t point to a single adaptation in nature that requires us to postulate macromutations because the feature supposedly can’t be produced by a stepwise accumulation of smaller mutations. (This latter claim, by the way, is promulgated by IDers like Behe, who posit God instead of macromutations to bridge the gap.)

Yet Buranyi implies that macromutation, which died after a spirited scientific debate, is unduly neglected (my emphasis):

Even more ominous for Darwinists was the emergence of the “mutationists” in the 1910s, a school of geneticists whose star exponent, Thomas Hunt Morgan, showed that by breeding millions of fruit flies – and sometimes spiking their food with the radioactive element radium – he could produce mutated traits, such as new eye colours or additional limbs. These were not the tiny random variations on which Darwin’s theory was built, but sudden, dramatic changes. And these mutations, it turned out, were heritable. The mutationists believed that they had identified life’s true creative force. Sure, natural selection helped to remove unsuitable changes, but it was simply a humdrum editor for the flamboyant poetry of mutation. “Natura non facit saltum,” Darwin had once written: “Nature does not make jumps.” The mutationists begged to differ.

These disputes over evolution had the weight of a theological schism. At stake were the forces governing all creation. For Darwinists especially, their theory was all-or-nothing. If another force, apart from natural selection, could also explain the differences we see between living things, Darwin wrote in On the Origin of Species, his whole theory of life would “utterly break down”. If the mutationists were right, instead of a single force governing all biological change, scientists would have to dig deep into the logic of mutation. Did it work differently on legs and lungs? Did mutations in frogs work differently to mutations in owls or elephants?

. . . The modern synthesis was such a seismic event that even its flatly wrong ideas took up to half a century to correct. The mutationists were so thoroughly buried that even after decades of proof that mutation was, in fact, a key part of evolution, their ideas were still regarded with suspicion. As recently as 1990, one of the most influential university evolution textbooks could claim that “the role of new mutations is not of immediate significance” – something that very few scientists then, or now, actually believe. Wars of ideas are not won with ideas alone.

This gets everything wrong. It misses the evidence against “mutationism” and implies that “mutationists” simply emphasized that mutations are an important part of evolution—something that NOBODY DENIES. In fact, mutationists implied not only that mutations of very large effect are pivotal in evolution, but drive evolution without the need for natural selection. As we all know, mutation and selection are both important for adaptive evolution: mutations are the gas and evolution is the car. You can’t say that one is more important than the other. By giving a misleading account the history of biology here, and conflating “mutationism” with “the importance of mutations in evolution,” Buranyi has done the reader a huge disservice.

d.) Punctuated equilibrium was only about the pace and timing of evolutionary change.

Other assaults on evolutionary orthodoxy followed. The influential palaeontologists Stephen Jay Gould and Niles Eldredge argued that the fossil record showed evolution often happened in short, concentrated bursts; it didn’t have to be slow and gradual.

In fact, the real critique of evolutionary orthodoxy in Gould and Eldredge’s theory of punctuated equilibrium was the linking of a jerky pattern in the fossil record to a novel and almost non-Darwinian process, involving macromutations, evolution in isolated populations, the crossing of adaptive valleys via strong genetic drift, and then sorting out the variable groups via “species selection” instead of conventional Darwinian “genic selection.” While I have envisioned one form of species selection that operates in nature (see the last chapter of my book Speciation with Allen Orr), that process operates on rates of speciation to which characters are linked, but is neither identical to nor as ubiquitous as the process Gould postulated.

The failure of the various parts of Gould’s theory to work (including adaptive valley crossing via drift) was demonstrated by a number of experiments and pieces of theoretical work (see here and here); I summarized the failure and demise of Gould’s mechanistic theory here. I’m not sure if the “jerky” fossil record that gave rise to the postulated processes is still accepted as ubiquitous by paleontologists, but as for now, the reasons Gould and Eldredge advanced for such a pattern—the important attack on neo-Darwinism—are incorrect. (There are of course several causes for “jerky” evolution, including an incomplete fossil record or a jerky process of natural selection itself.)

e.) The scientific debate about the ambit of evolutionary biology is a “culture war.”  This bit really got my knickers in a twist:

To release biology from the legacy of the modern synthesis, explains Massimo Pigliucci, a former professor of evolution at Stony Brook University in New York, you need a range of tactics to spark a reckoning: “Persuasion, students taking up these ideas, funding, professorial positions.” You need hearts as well as minds. During a Q&A with Pigliucci at a conference in 2017, one audience member commented that the disagreement between EES proponents and more conservative biologists sometimes looked more like a culture war than a scientific disagreement. According to one attender, “Pigliucci basically said: ‘Sure, it’s a culture war, and we’re going to win it,’ and half the room burst out cheering.”

Bad call, Massimo! No, it’s not a culture war, even if sometimes scientists get heated and use terms like “evolution by jerks” to characterize advocates of punctuated equilibrium. The debate was conducted, and largely settled, by scientific argument that didn’t include that kind of acrimony. It is simply a debate about what mechanisms are important in evolution. My own view is that yes, the Modern Evolutionary Synthesis includes stuff that we didn’t even dream of 80 years ago (the “neutral theory” is one), but there is simply no reason to pronounce neo-Darwinism obsolete. “Expansion” is an okay word, but saying that “we need a new theory of evolution” is both ignorant and hyperbolic.

I could write for several days on the errors and distortions of Buranyi’s piece, but I’m tired. What’s given above is meant to serve merely as a few examples of the misguided nature of his article. What’s worse is that it misleads laypeople into thinking that there’s something seriously wrong with modern evolutionary theory. That itself could hearten creationists, and I’m sure the IDers are already lapping up the Guardian piece.

The Royal Society of New Zealand blows off those complaining about its treatment of the Satanic Seven; refuses to apologize for mistreating them

April 15, 2022 • 8:15 am

I don’t want to recount the whole story about how seven professors at Auckland University, three of them members of the Royal Society of New Zealand (RSNZ), wrote a letter to a magazine (“The Listener”) questioning whether Maori “ways of knowing” (Mātauranga Māori, or “MM”) should be taught along with and coequal to science, as the government is planning.

Because they questioned whether MM,, which is a collection of myths, superstition, legend, morality, some practical knowledge, and misinformation (i.e., creationism) should be taught as “science”, the “Satanic Seven” were largely demonized as racists. Two of the members (one recently died), were chastised in a tweet from the RSNZ, and then were investigated by the RSNZ because there were ludicrous complaints that their letter caused “harm”. They were eventually exculpated, but at the beginning the RSNZ put this statement on its website:

This statement criticizes the signing members by asserting that MM is science, that the modern definition of science is “outmoded” (presumably it should include creationism), and simply rejecting the assertions of their three members. This announcement is invidious, and eventually the RSNZ, after what seems to have been a complaint from London’s Royal society, took it down.

You can read more about this, and see the petition described below, at an earlier post. In the meantime, 73 fellows of the RSNZ—a substantial portion of the members—signed a petition complaining about the Society’s behavior  and making three motions:

We therefore move that:

1. Both the Society and Academy write to Professors Cooper and Nola, and to the Estate of Professor Corballis, and apologise for its handling of the entire process.

2. The Society reviews its current code of conduct to ensure that this cannot happen again, and in future the actions of the Academy/Council are far more circumspect and considered in regards to complaints concerning contentious matters.

3. The entirety of the RSNZ/RSTA entity be reviewed, examining structure and function and alignment with other international academies, and the agency given its Fellows upon whom its reputation rests.

The RSNZ responded that it would hold a special meeting on Wednesday to consider this petition. It did, but, as the notes below show, the RSNZ didn’t do squat, much less even vote on the motions.

An RSNZ member who will remain anonymous conveyed these notes to me abut the meeting. (Note: “RSTA” in the text below, which stands for “The Royal Society Te Apārangi”, is the same thing as what I’ve been calling RSNZ—”Royal Society of New Zealand”—whose full name is “Royal Society of New Zealand Te Apārangi.” The notes taken by the member are indented, while the are mine. Note the quotes from Māori experts affirming that MM is not science!

Notes on RSTA meeting 13 April 2022

The RSTA meeting involved about 100 people on site in Wellington and over 100 people online.

The meeting was held under the Chatham House Rule, which means participants can report on the “information received” but not on the identity of the speakers or their affiliation. This is supposed to facilitate open discussion. Of course participants were not allowed to discuss the Rule.

The next procedural matter participants were told was that there could not be a vote on any of the motions proposed.

One of the two facilitators explained that the President of RSTA, Brent Clothier, and the Chair of Academy Council, Charlotte Macdonald, would not be answering questions since this was about “you having your say.” To many it seemed, rather, that the facilitators were there to serve the RSTA executive in damage control. In accord with this rule the President and Academy Chair did not have to answer questions, repeatedly put, about how the message they both signed, denouncing the Listener letter-writers for things they did not actually say, and kept on the RSTA website for months, was decided upon and worked out.

After the mover of the motions spoke to them at length and corporate governance was then also spoken to, there was a little discussion of the ruling that there could be no vote on any of the motions proposed. But further discussion was blocked (except for one objection) when it was reiterated by the “independent” facilitators that it was “inappropriate” to have votes today, “not possible” because the rules of the Society do not allow it. True enough: this was one of the complaints, of course, that there is almost no way Fellows can have input, either by putting items on an AGM or calling for another meeting (at least RSTA agreed to this meeting, knowing that the widely-supported request for it had already become an embarrassingly public fact) or voting on issues.

There was some discussion of mātauranga Māori and science, including one early speaker who claimed that there were racist tropes in the Listener letter [JAC: You can read the letter here.] because it claimed that “indigenous knowledge is not science” and this was like saying “indigenous art is not art.” It was not said at the meeting that it is very strange to claim that it is racist to suggest that “indigenous knowledge is not science,” in view of the fact that leading Māori advocates of mātauranga Maori, Professor Sir Mason Durie, and of the decolonisation of education and research, Professor Linda Tuhiwai Smith, say the same thing:

You can’t understand science through the tools of Mātauranga Māori, and you can’t understand Mātauranga Māori through the tools of science. They’re different bodies of knowledge, and if you try to see one through the eyes of the other you mess up. “

Sir Mason Durie, Vision Mātauranga Rauika Māngai [2nd Ed], 2020, p. 26

Indigenous knowledge cannot be verified by scientific criteria nor can science be adequately assessed according to the tenets of indigenous knowledge.  Each is built on distinctive philosophies, methodologies and criteria.”

Durie, M. (2004) ‘Exploring the Interface between Science and Indigenous Knowledge’. 5th APEC Research and Development Leaders Forum. Capturing Value from Science.

And from the intellectual leader of the decolonisation movement, Linda Tuhiwai Smith (2016):

“[S]ome aspects of IK mātauranga are fundamentally incommensurate with other, established disciplines of knowledge and in particular with science, and are a much grander and more ‘mysterious’ set of ideas, values and ways of being than science.”

Smith, L., Maxwell, Te K., Puke, H., Temara, P. (2016)  ‘Indigenous Knowledge, Methodology and Mayhem: What is the Role of Methodology in Producing Indigenous Insights? A Discussion from Mātauranga Māori’. Knowledge Cultures 4(3): 131-56.)

But it was said that while it would now be racist to claim that indigenous art is not art, partly because art has fuzzy boundaries and because indigenous art contains such treasures, science has much sharper boundaries and rules, especially that anyone can propose or challenge ideas in science, and that there is no final say—positions directly at odds with the claims about mātauranga Māori by leading Māori:

Māori are the only ones who should be controlling all aspects of its retention, its transmission, its protection.”

Aroha Te Pareake Mead, Rauika Māngai, A Guide to Vision Mātauranga, p. 33)

Most of the discussion of MM (and there wasn’t much) consisted of affirmations that it is valued (often as if this is an argument for its being science). No one of course argued otherwise at the meeting, and the Listener letter writers had explicitly affirmed its value, including for science, and that it should be taught—just not as science.

More of the discussion was on governance and RSTA’s engagement, or lack of it, with Fellows, and discouragement of free speech. There was certainly widespread agreement that there was insufficient engagement or space for input or discussion among Fellows.

A number of Fellows independently called for the apology to Garth Cooper, Robert Nola and Michael Corballis’s estate in motion 1 to be sent out by RSTA, and no one spoke against it. No one maintained that the RSTA acted correctly in their website denunciation or the removal of the exoneration of any suggestion of bad faith on the fellows’ part from the report of the Investigating Panel. To many, however, it seems unlikely that RSTA will take this request on board, although signed by the seventy-plus signatories of the letter to RSTA and supported again viva voce in the meeting.

On the other hand it does seem likely that the RSTA officers will have to take on board the widespread criticisms of the lack of accountability and engagement. But that seems entirely up to them and their readiness to move beyond protecting their positions. There is no concrete pressure on them except the moral pressure they may feel from the unhappiness of many about the current system.

The two “independent” facilitators will write a report to go to the RSTA executives, which they can then do what they like with it.

Those present at the meeting in person or online have also been given an email to write to, until late (5pm? midnight?) on April 14 (i.e. the day after the meeting) where they can send in written comments to the RSTA executive. [JAC: Of course I don’t have this email, and even if I did I would not publish it because it is for Fellows alone.]

So there it is: a meeting RSTA didn’t have to call (although it would have elicited still more international embarrassment had they not), but with the predetermined rule that there was to be no vote on any motion; and with wide affirmation of MM and RSTA’s support for it (whether or not as science was much less clear); and wide criticism of RSTA’s corporate structure and lack of accountability, of its poor engagement with its Fellows and discouragement of free speech; and an emphasis on the RSTA’s need to clarify its function and to shape its form to fit this function. But this criticism is at this point to be responded to entirely as they see fit by a self-policing executive.

In other words, the Royal Society of New Zealand feels no responsibility to respond to its members’ motions, or to investigate its own behavior. It can if it wants, but if it doesn’t want to—and I suspect this will be the case—it doesn’t have to. They’re likely hoping the kerfuffle will blow over. As for “meeting”, it was simply window-dressing: giving its members a chance to blow off steam.

The RSNZ has come out of this with not just egg on its face, but a massive omelet draped over its body.  They were wrong to demonize and publicly disagree with their members, they were wrong in their characterization of MM as “science” (do they even know what science is?), and they were wrong to stonewall and not respond to the members’ call for apologies and structural form.

The two members who were investigated, Drs. Robert Nola and Garth Cooper, have resigned from the RSNZ. A large number of the other members are disaffected. The RSNZ won’t do the right thing because it would be considered “racist”.

The institution is ridiculous and and should be mocked.