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Future chroniclers of the British will mark today as the moment we had to revise downwards, with some urgency, all estimates of average intelligence in the UK. Just under half of Britons accept the theory of evolution as the best description for the development of life, according to an opinion poll, while "more than 40% of those questioned believe that creationism or intelligent design (ID) should be taught in school science lessons".

Elbow-deep in the entrails of this revelation, trying desperately to dig out some good news, Lord Rees, president of the Royal Society, said: "It is surprising that many should still be sceptical of Darwinian evolution... We are, however, fortunate compared to the US in that no major segment of UK religious or cultural life opposes the inclusion of evolution in the school science curriculum."

Or, looked at another way, we are at the stage where slightly more than half the population doesn't reckon much to the theory of evolution without having been encouraged in this by any major lobbying organisations. (I'm not counting the Church, Judaism or Islam as "major lobbying organisations" here. The numbers still say we're not, in the main, a god-fearing country.) So just think of the fun that will ensue when the religious right over here takes its cue from the religious right over there and starts agitating for evolution to be reclassified as "intriguing but heretical theory". Thankfully the UK's RR is still only at the toddling stage, so none of this will start happening until Blair's out of power, which is a blessing, as, basic curriculum aside, he's very relaxed about faith schools teaching whatever comes into their little heads.


( 18 comments — Leave a comment )
Jan. 30th, 2006 07:27 pm (UTC)
which is a blessing, as, basic curriculum aside, he's very relaxed about faith schools teaching whatever comes into their little heads.

Well, that's highly misleading. Blair doesn't question at all the teaching of a national curriculum, including science, including evolution. IIRC, one of the city academies was run by some born-again who wanted intelligent design taught as well (which isn't creationism anyway, and doesn't preclude evolution). I wouldn't characterise that as letting faith schools teach whatever comes into their heads. I went to a faith school, and was certainly taught about evolution, but sometimes in the framework of intelligent design (i.e. that God set up the system of evolution in the first place). That might be not to the taste of atheists, but it's not full-on crazy.

That survey bothers me, anyway - something about it smells a bit fishy. Particularly the lumping in of creationism with Intelligent design.
Jan. 31st, 2006 09:40 am (UTC)
You're mistaken about what the "intelligent design" movement is arguing for. ID doesn't claim merely that "God set up the system of evolution in the first place". It claims that there are biological phenomena that can't have evolved, and that therefore there must have been some sort of conscious agency involved. It's nothing more than the Paley's watch argument.

If ID restricted itself to claiming that maybe God set the whole shooting match going, it would be a lot less pernicious (although you'd still have to discuss the weak and strong anthropic principles as alternatives). Darwin himself allowed at one point that maybe God had played a role in the origin of life.

But ID is much worse than that. It's still happy to use the same old untrue examples of things that couldn't possibly have come about through natural selection. The only difference between the Intelligent Design movement and Creationism is that ID is careful not to specify which God or gods is supposed to have done the designing, and it stays away from arguing that the Earth is only 6000 years old.

ID isn't something that's believed by working scientists, it's just a tactic used by religious lobbyists, and it definitely shouldn't be taught in schools. Evolution unifies and makes sense of the whole of biology, and yet it seems to be taught as a tacked on afterthought, without any discussion of the levels of selection - that's bad enough, without wasting any time on ID.

ID as a tactic appeals to the "reasonable man" in all of us - those scientists believe in evolution, the zealots believe in Creationism - let's split the difference and plump for ID. But ID is just a stalking horse for the same old zealots.

I don't think this poll is that depressing, though. More people believed in evolution than in the other two options put together, and I'm sure that a lot of people weren't even sure what ID claims. I think with more publicity for the issue, when the feebleness of the ID argument becomes clearer, the public would probably swing towards evolution if anything.
Jan. 31st, 2006 10:44 am (UTC)
I take your points about ID, but I think the confusion that exists about exactly what it means probably goes some way to explain its showing in the poll. Moreover, I'd be willing to bet that some people thought "creationism" simply meant that God created the universe, rather than believing it all happened in 6,000 BC, the dinosaurs are a test of faith etc. etc.

I don't think this poll is that depressing, though. More people believed in evolution than in the other two options put together, and I'm sure that a lot of people weren't even sure what ID claims.

Indeed. I'd have liked to have seen the survey itself - the questions used, sample size etc.
Jan. 31st, 2006 10:59 am (UTC)
Here's more about the poll from the MORI site:


Q1 I am going to read out three different theories or explanations about the origin and development of life on earth. Can you tell me which of the following theories best describes your view?

1. The "evolution theory" says that human kind has developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life. God had no part in this process.
2. The "creationism theory" says that God created human kind pretty much in his/her present form at one time within the last 10,000 years.
3. The "intelligent design theory" says that certain features of living things are best explained by the intervention of a supernatural being, e.g. God.

Q2 I am going to read out the same three theories. For each one can you tell me whether you think they should or should not be taught in school science classes, or are you unsure? For each, on balance, do you think …

So the questions seem fairly clear, and the sample size is 2000-odd, weighted to the UK population.
Jan. 31st, 2006 12:27 pm (UTC)
Fair enough, the creationism definition seems pretty clear, and the sample size is respectable.

Their definition of intelligent design is a bit woolly, mind. I think it would be fairly easy for even a vaguely Christian person to accept both evolution and that definition of ID.

Another thing that struck me about the poll is that it doesn't so much show that British people are a gang of Bible toting loonies, but that about half the population don't know anything about science. I should imagine if you polled people about how old the Earth was without mentioning religion, plenty of people would go for 10,000 years - among other crazy guesses. I'm not entirely clear how old it is myself (although I know it's a lot more than 10,000 years).
Jan. 31st, 2006 01:59 pm (UTC)
Of course the general public can't be relied on to know much about science - that's why the ID ploy, targetted at school boards, enjoyed some success in the US. The plea to "teach the controversy" only works if people don't know what the scientific orthodoxy actually is, and that the examples used to argue in favour of ID are mainly long discredited.

However, ID hasn't even worked very well in the States, because higher courts eventually see through the trick.

I think the definition of intelligent design is wooly partly because the ID movement itself has to keep its arguments vague. They can't go into too much detail about the "designer" and what He - sorry, he/she/it - supposedly did. Get too theological and they give the game away that they're not a scientific movement. Try to construct a rational case and the IDers risk alienating their fundy backers as the "designer" becomes too far removed from the dogma it was invented to promote.

To construct a rational case for some sort of supernatural/extraterrestrial intervention in the course of life on Earth, you'd have to go back to the origin of life, which remains pretty mysterious. But to do that, you'd have to admit that the Earth is 4 billion years old (or whatever), and that the Universe is a huge, old, lonely place. Which wouldn't play well in Bvmfvck, Idaho.
Jan. 31st, 2006 03:30 pm (UTC)
And that would just leave the problem of explaining how this designer - presumably some loft-dwelling diety with a battered satchel and nice glasses - got to be complicated enough itself to be able to design an octopus's eyeball (by the sea), or jump-start the bowl of primordial soup or whatever. Any recourse to a designer is just an excuse to stop thinking, isn't it?
Jan. 31st, 2006 03:36 pm (UTC)
Any recourse to a designer is just an excuse to stop thinking, isn't it?

Not necessarily. There may simply be areas of cosmology, especially if one goes back to the beginning of time, that are simply too boggling for our three-dimensional minds to grasp. That doesn't mean that there is a designer of course, but it doesn't mean that having one is a substitute for thinking, either. I mean, we may simply be talking about something - I dunno - ultra-dimensional that's conscious in a way we can't really comprehend. It's really not something that can impinge on scientific ideas like evolution, however, as science deals with the concretely knowable.

I personally only have a problem with theology when it's used to actively deny what is plainly true and in front of my very eyes, so to speak, like when creationists claim that the dinosaurs are some kind of trick, or that the Earth was formed in 6,000 BC.
Jan. 31st, 2006 04:07 pm (UTC)
I don't know, to say the origin of the universe is unknowable, but then to decide there is some kind of designer... if it's not stopping thinking, it does seem kind of arbitrary.

I'd say the ultimate problem is: "how come there is stuff?" which probably is something we can't solve. At some point it probably has to boil down to something popping out of nowhere. If something has to pop out of nowhere, I'd rather it was some extremely simple basic stuff (plus, um, physical laws) with some tiny variation which, with time and heat, coagulates into gas, stars etc. and thence riboflavin, germs, hens etc. - all stuff bar the initial appearance that humans can have a stab at explaining and comprehending, without invoking anything else. To add another layer - Odin or a giant Star Trek baby or a cloud of pure thought or whatever - just seems unnecessary, and gives you an extra, equally hard problem to explain.

I guess the difference between the two positions might be:

(1) The origin of stuff is probably unknowable to humans, but that origin is quite complicated

(2) The origin of stuff is probably unknowable to humans, but that origin is very simple

BTW, in a similar ballpark - where are all the blasphemy protestors today? I saw one guy with red gaffa tape over his mouth, but he could have just been following the man with the sign which said 'GIMP SALE THIS WAY'.
Jan. 31st, 2006 04:39 pm (UTC)
Sorry, deity, not diety. I don't know what a diety is.
Jan. 31st, 2006 05:01 pm (UTC)
Is it a God who's trying to create a plan to lose 2 stone in seven days?
Jan. 31st, 2006 05:17 pm (UTC)
The GoDiet?

And on the first day, God ate a salad and a Ryvita
And on the second day, God ate a salad and some Snackajacks, and they were good.
And on the third day God ate a delicious, nutritious milkshake for breakfast and a delicious, nutritious milkshake for lunch and a proper meal at night, and he did look upon scales, and the reading 'pon the scales did pleaseth him.
But on the fourth day, God said: "Let there be bacon." And there was bacon, and it was good. Too good.
And on the fifth day, God did look upon the scales and sayeth "I know I'm meant to be omnipresent, but this is ridiculous."
And... gahhh, the terrible thing is that the writer of The Aspi Spumante Code is probably working on The GoDiet right now, and it'll probably sell as well as The Chronicles of Blarnia.

Feb. 1st, 2006 12:01 pm (UTC)
Some people have invoked designers without being lazy God botherers.

Renowned scientist/mentalist Fred Hoyle developed an elaborate theory where evolutionary changes came in bundles of genes from space carried by bacterial spores drifting between stars.

He didn't really explain where the gene packages came from, and in particular how they could possibly be tailored to work with the development systems of particular species at a distance of many light years. But just maybe a platypus is just a beaver that upgrade intended for a duck.

Francis Crick also proposed that the origin of life on Earth was through directed panspermia by intelligent aliens. Which could have happened, but raises a few "there's a chicken and egg in my bucket" issues.
Feb. 1st, 2006 12:25 pm (UTC)
This is it: I don't think it's the origin of life that is the main problem, it's the origin of the universe(s) it(them)self(ves). Maybe all that's needed is one event without a cause - which does seem to be something that human minds find very difficult.

I await the day - surely not too far off - when these difficult questions are settled once and for all on a LiveJournal comments thread. Probably by nudejournal
Feb. 1st, 2006 03:00 pm (UTC)
Ah, but is the origin of life bound up with the origin of the universe? Given that the values of various cosmological constants supposedly need to be fine-tuned to create a universe with any hope of giving rise to any sort of complex life, maybe so.

What I'm saying is, perhaps the meaning of the universe is nudejournal.
Feb. 1st, 2006 05:49 pm (UTC)
Ah, but is the origin of life bound up with the origin of the universe?

Nahhh. But have you read the newest Iain M Banks effort? I can't remember what it's called, but there is a sideline of a future religion, where they have worked out that if it's possible to create a simulacrum universe within a computer then it's almost certain that the universe they're in is a simulation. There's a religion that believes that once more than 50% of the sentient inhabitants of the universe realise this, the universe will have achieved Rapture and will be turned off. The religion has split into two sects - one trying to achieve Rapture by converting as many beings as possible to the faith - the other trying to achieve the same end simply by killing as many sentient beings as possible, thereby making it easier to break the 50% threshold. Or maybe the two sects are working together, I can't remember. Either way - it makes you think, eh?

What I'm saying is, perhaps the meaning of the universe is nudejournal.

I do keep finding gilt-edged printouts of his blog in the drawer of hotel rooms.
Jan. 31st, 2006 03:31 pm (UTC)
Of course the general public can't be relied on to know much about science - that's why the ID ploy, targetted at school boards, enjoyed some success in the US.

This bothers me, though. In the US, the religious right actively militate against science - there is an proactive anti-science at work, if you will. Here, we have no such excuse, just a culture of distrusting science that extends from simple ignorance among the working class to some kind of misplaced snobbery among the middle classes.
Feb. 2nd, 2006 11:05 am (UTC)
Oh, and where oh where can I get a toga with the word "ATHEISTS" written on it?
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