Are the top universities in the United Kingdom abandoning the teaching of evolution?

Yes, according to U.K. creationist YouTuber davemakesawave who started leaving comments in response to a short video I did regarding so called “polystrate” fossils and the claims creationists make about them. However this post, as the title suggests, is not about “polystrate” fossils; for those interested in them I suggest the following links as good starting places.

As I said davemakesawave started off commenting on my “polystrate fossil” video but the topic of our exchange veered of that subject immediately with him making some rather grand claims about the state of science education at “top UK universities”. Given the limitations of YouTube video comments I thought this would be a better venue to thoroughly examine his allegations.

The following is the exchange that davemakesawave and I have had so far:

davemakesawave: Polystrate fossils are creation nonsense? What?

Me: It says “linked comment” but there’s no link. Was there something that you weren’t clear about regarding the nonsense creationists spout about “polystrate” fossils?

davemakesawave: No nothing at all thank you, I am quite clear about polystrate fossils especially as some UK universities now openly concede that the fossil record does not show evolution.

Me: No doubt. There are so called “universities” in the U.S. that spread lies and misinformation as well (Liberty U., Bob Jones U. etc.). Of course with the U.K. being historically so central to the formation of modern geology there is even less excuse for it.

davemakesawave: Interestingly it is the top UK universities that are teaching the fossil record does not show evolution, even though the lecturers are also promoting atheism; it is not based on bias, it is based on real science but without evolution, atheism has no basis whatsoever. Interesting isn’t it? And this is partly why I dumped atheism some 28 years ago; this and God revealing and proving himself to me. My story is on YT An Atheist Saved In Jesus Name if you want to watch it. Tx

Me: Sorry Dave, I’m going to call bullshit, on this. I don’t believe for a second that the biology & geology departments of, say Oxford or Cambridge, would teach any such thing. The time ordered pattern of change in the fossil record is perfectly consistent with descent with modification (evolution), indeed evolution is currently the only logical and coherent explanation for this and other patterns found in nature.

So name specifically which “top UK universities” are staffed with incompetents or shut up. And spare me your atheist baiting and witnessing. Defend your scientific claims or take it somewhere else.

And now we’ll look at davemakesawave’s response to my demand that he back up his claim:

davemakesawave: Warwick University is one of the top 10 in the UK, number 4 or thereabouts; they teach that the fossil record does not show evolution; others do also.

Putting the search term “top UK universities” into Google resulted in several sites ranking various U.K. universities and while there was some variation in the rankings Warwick University did indeed show up on several of them as being highly ranked.

So they are apparently not the British version of Bob Jones University but what about davemakesawave assertion that they, “teach that the fossil record does not show evolution”?

A search of Warwick’s website quickly made two things quite clear to me; first they don’t appear to have a geology department but rather seem to focus on physics and biology (plant biology in particular) when it comes to the sciences. The only geology class I could find on the Warwick site was for a “Open Studies Short Course” on Earth Science.

Second, while they may not be teaching anything substantial about geology & paleontology, they certainly teach evolutionary biology there. It is therefore likely that if anything is taught about the fossil record it would only be the very basics, as part of courses on evolution in the biology undergraduate programs.

I was able to glean a few bits of evidence from their website about what they might be teaching regarding evolution and the fossil record.

First on the News & Events section of their site they still have a page from two years ago (2009) announcing that the Department of Biological Sciences would be hosting a series of seminars “…on the work of Charles Darwin to celebrate the 200th Anniversary of his birth, and the 150th Anniversary of the publication of “On the Origin of Species”.”

The following is from the description of the event:

In the 150 years following the publication of “On the Origin of Species”, Darwin’s evolutionary theory has become fundamental to our understanding of biology at all levels, from ecosystems to molecules. Indeed, the theory of evolution is arguably the most prominent and far-reaching theory in the whole of science.

The theory has altered human perception of the natural world in a profound way. For years, the natural world was seen as static and created, but Darwin’s work, coupled with the discovery of ancient fossils and a greater understanding of the geological age of the earth, challenged this view. Now the theory of evolution is almost universally accepted, and informs the vast majority of biological thinking. (Emphasis mine)

Next there is Dr. Robin Allaby, Associate Professor in Warwick’s School of Life Sciences, who heads a “Plant Evolution Research” group. Prof. Allaby teaches undergraduate classes in both “Evolution” and “Land Plant Evolution” and as it happens he has posted links to some of the PowerPoint presentations that he uses in his teaching for his students to download.

One, titled “Land Pant Evolution” (dated 2011) lays out, as you might have guessed from the title, the major features of plant evolution and includes amongst other things the following images:

This is from slide #9 and looks like a fairly standard textbook geological column to me. It even includes references to the “evolutionary radiation” of various groups at different geological time periods.

This is from slide #12 and it is a phylogram showing the phylogenetic relationships and changes is diversity of various plant groups though geologic time.

Yet another presentation titled “Palaeobiology: how extreme environments drive evolutionary change in large organisms” includes a number of graphs showing various mass extinctions and evolutionary radiations through geologic time and contains another standard geologic column with references to evolution on slide #4:

That sure looks like Prof. Allaby is teaching that fossils “show evolution” to me.

As a sanity check I contacted the British Center for Science Education and asked if they had heard anything that would substantiate davemakesawave claim. I got a quick response from their Dr. Paul Braterman stating:

There is no truth to this nonsense, and indeed such a thing would be unthinkable at a UK university. Warwick is not Bob Jones. (Personal communication, 5/14/2011)

I know what you’re thinking but I swear I made no reference to Bob Jones University in my inquiry. Much to my amusement Dr. Braterman came up with the B.J.U. comparison independently.

Addendum, via the National Center for Science Education (5-23-2011): Creationism banned from “free schools” in Britain.

davemakesawave: There’s no point having a go at me about it is there? I’m just passing on information from atheist professors.

I’ll have a go at anyone who spreads lies and misinformation; case in point, just about everything you’ve said. And whether or not they’re atheists is irrelevant, it is whether their arguments are logical and factual that counts. I know several scientists who are Christians and whose science is exemplary. Likewise I’ve come across atheist scientists who’ve said things I thought questionable.

 davemakesawave: Speaking of which “if we arrange all our available fossils in chronological order, they do not form a smooth sequence of scarcely perceptible change” (Richard Dawkins 1996: 229).

It is possible that davemakesawave came up with this quote on his own and that he imagined that by not giving a complete reference I wouldn’t be willing or able to track down its source, or perhaps that I might not have the book it comes from, if that were the case that would make him intellectually dishonest and sorely mistaken about who he is dealing with.

However I think it more likely that he simply cut and pasted this quote from some creationist website and doesn’t know or care about the true meaning or context of the quote, which would suggest that he is merely being willfully ignorant and intellectually lazy.

The quote is from chapter 9 of Richard Dawkins book The Blind Watchmaker (1996), at it is ripped out of the context of discussing punctuated equilibrium.  Here is the quote restored to it immediate context (with davemakesawave quote in blue):

From Darwin onwards evolutionists have realized that, if we arrange all our available fossils in chronological order, they do not form a smooth sequence of scarcely perceptible change. We can, to be sure, discern long-term trends of change – legs get progressively longer, skulls get progressively more bulbous, and so on – but the trends as seen in the fossil record are usually jerky, not smooth. Darwin, and most others following him, have assumed that this is mainly because the fossil record is imperfect. Darwin’s view was that a complete fossil record, if only we had one, would show gentle rather than jerky change. But since fossilization is such a chancy business, and finding such fossils as there are is scarcely less chancy, it is as though we had a cine film with most of the frames missing. We can, to be sure, see movement of a kind when we project our film of fossils, but it is more jerky than Charlie Chaplin, for even the oldest and scratchiest Charlie Chaplin film hasn’t completely lost nine-tenths of its frames. (Dawkins, 1996, p.229, emphasis mine)

So we see when this quote is returned to context, the very next sentence contradicts davemakesawave implication that Dawkins was somehow admitting that the fossil record did not show evidence of evolution.

Instead, we find Dawkins is only acknowledging that, due the fragmentary nature of the fossil record (and the nature of speciation if you read the rest of the chapter), the changes in fossil lineages appear “jerky” rather than “smooth”. Furthermore he reaffirms that the fossil record contains the overall pattern of change that is expected under evolutionary theory.

By the by, I highly recommend this chapter of Dawkins book as a good explanation of punctuated equilibrium as well as a needed (especially at the time) counter to the excessive rhetoric of some of its champions (especially Stephen Gould), the effects of which are still lingering to this day.

davemakesawave: Warwick University is a definite, I’m told others do also but because I am too old to go to school now, I can only rely on what I am told from those on the inside.

So you say, however I went and looked at the web pages of something like ten different U.K. universities and found references both to the teaching of evolutionary biology and evolution in the fossil record.

University of Cambridge (Darwin’s Alma Mater):

University of Oxford:

Durham University:

University of St Andrews:

University of Bath:

University College London:

University of York:

University of Bristol:

University of Edinburgh:

Imperial College London:

OK Dave, I’ve shown evidence in the form of links to Warwick University’s website (and that of several other U.K. Universities) that they are in fact still teaching evolution; including that evolution is reflected in the fossil record. Now it is incumbent upon you to give evidence for your claim that this is actually not the case.

[Side note to other readers: It is possible that Dave got this idea about Warwick University due to the fact that Steve Fuller, who teaches sociology there, testified at the Kitzmiller v. Dover "intelligent design" trial in favor of intelligent design theory creationism.]

davemakesawave: There’s television science documentaries, you tube science and then real science in the university establishment; it’s just the way it is.

If it’s on the TV it must be true…

davemakesawave: Evolution is crumbling but hey ho, I believe in God because of the evidence for God not because evolution has never been seen.

“Evolution is crumbling”? That sounds familiar. Oh, I remember why; it’s because creationists have been claiming that it is pretty much since the day the Origin of Species was published. See: The Imminent Demise of Evolution: The Longest Running Falsehood in Creationism” by Glenn R. Morton.

Yep, evolution is going to crumble any second now. As for your religious views, they’re irrelevant to this discussion.

Dave you might want to take a look at my postIntermediate fossils and the pre-Darwin (creationist) geologists“, as well as the following from a creationist journal (Origins):

Richard Ritland (1981) “Historical Development of the Current Understanding of the Geologic Column: Part I“, Origins 8(2):59-76

Richard Ritland (1982) “Historical Development of the Current Understanding of the Geologic Column: Part II“, Origins 9(1):28-50

5 thoughts on “Are the top universities in the United Kingdom abandoning the teaching of evolution?

  1. Thank you for this detailed take down of one particular fool. You show how easy it is to make assertions without evidence and how hard it is for rational people to show reality.

  2. It’s possible that this guy is confusing statements on the changing nature of evolutionary biology courses, which are (unfortunately in opinion) having less and less cover of the fossil record in favor of all the new information in evodevo/population genetics, etc.

    • Hi Christine,

      I know what you mean; and from what I understand a similar situation exists with systematics. However I think you’re giving this guy too much credit. I seriously doubt he’s anywhere near that tuned into the changes in emphasis going on in evolutionary biology.

  3. Gosh, creationists making shit up? Who’d a thunk it?

    However, one take-away lesson here is how much harder it is to debunk bullshit than to invent it. How much time did you spend chasing down Warwick U et al, compared to how much time Hand-Wavey Davey spent coming up with the claim in the first place? Not in any way to disparage your efforts (because at least once in a while, these claims should be positively refuted, just to make the point) but this is why the normal rule is that the one making the claim must present reasonable evidence for it, not just say so and sit back.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s