The talk was entitled "Exposing the Ape-man Myth"
The room was set up with 60 seats - approx. attendance of 20-25 - at least 4 of whom were sceptical of his "message". Leaving aside the sceptics the average age of the attendees was approximately 60 years.
One side of the room was taken up by stalls with large numbers of various creationist materials covering many different sciences and subjects in the form of glossy books, DVD sets etc. There were even some small fossils for sale.
One book caught my eye entitled "Astronomy and the Bible", I flicked through it and saw a chapter on the Big Bang Theory.
"Where did the energy come from?" is the first question. The idea being that if the theory couldn't answer every question then it must be wrong and the bible is the alternative explanation.
In this particular case the question itself belies a deep ignorance of the big bang model which includes the counter-intuitive idea that the total amount of energy in the universe is in fact thought to be zero.
Clearly the author did not feel that it was necessary to understand the theory being "criticised" in order to write a chapter on it.
But even leaving that aside, we see the first example of a key theme for the evening, a key theme which, when you stop to think about it is a straw-man argument and it is also illogical anyway.
The argument goes like this;
"X theory does not explain Y, therefore X theory is false"
This is a straw-man when X theory does not claim to explain Y anyway.
This is also illogical as it completely ignores a very important point. Just what evidence DOES X theory explain? If it explains an awful lot then this should be taken into account.
Logical fallacies are simply errors in thinking and are a topic I find interesting. Spotting them in my own thoughts and those of others has helped my understanding of the world and life a great deal. I even have a couple of pages covering the basics if you are interested starting here.
A basic knowledge of logical fallacies is helpful when you start delving into creationism because creationism has evolved some very subtle and effective seeming sound bites (which are actually logical fallacies) in the face of keen selection pressure from the scientific community.
Evaluating evidence is another key skill, not just in making your mind up about this debate but for anyone in the world today and I cover the basics of this here.
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Another useful issue is to bear in mind that religious thinking tends to include absolutes, things which are 100% true. This is emphatically not how science works. In science everything is contingent and new evidence is actively sought all the time.
This concept can be easily misunderstood by some people and even in the so called informed media, and I have often heard comments that the debates amongst scientists and the changes made to scientific thinking when new evidence comes in, shows how weak science is. After all it is never sure it is right.
I contend that it is this never ending thirst for the truth and the willingness not to hold any sacred dogma other than what the evidence shows us that is the strength of science. Of course there are plenty of things that science is say 99% sure about, but science will always change it's mind when faced with new evidence.
Up until now, in my experiences with creationists over the last couple of years, I have yet to see any positive evidence presented in favour of creation. All I have seen is negative evidence in the form of misguided pot shots at some small area of the evidence in favour of evolution. These pot shots are very often laced with logical fallacies and misrepresentations or misunderstandings of what evolution actually is.
Now please note that having made the effort to come and hear this chap speak, I will be listening carefully to what he says and thinking about his arguments.
Ultimately I will judge his comments based upon the evidence he presents and the logic with which he presents it.
These issues will be a common theme for the evening as we shall see.
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It was now almost 7.30 (the advertised start time) so I sat down and had a look at the leaflet that I had been handed as I entered the room. This bit immediately caught my eye;
"Schools have been amazed at the programs Creation research has developed and filmed in Universities and Public High Schools, showing the evidence for creation."
It will be interesting to see if we do get any actual evidence for Creation or if we just get the usual pot shots thrown at tiny parts of the evidence for evolution.
7.41 and we are off and away.
John starts with a joke about the poor attendance and how he is losing out to the England football match to start us off. ( history now tells me that I was right to miss the match ;-( )
John has been touring the UK for nearly two months now and gives us a plug for his web site www.creationresearch.net
There then followed several plugs for books and DVD's which were for sale on the stall. I won't list them here. There are several mentions of atheists during these plugs and straight away I can see that this guy does not like atheists one little bit. I can hear it in his voice.
We are shown a picture of a monkey with a laptop and John tells us that;
"this is what evolution means, man is just an animal"John tells us that he has recently spent three years studying genetics - I wonder if this will form part of his evidence? No mention of where he did this studying or what qualification he obtained. Checking his web site bio there is no mention of this either. Can anyone shed any more light on this?
He now shows us various clips from the UK press who covered his tour last year and asks;
Why do people follow me around? Why all the attention?He never answers these questions but asks them as if they are an extremely damning point against the "evolutionists".
The audience are nodding and I realise that I must be missing something here. Perhaps this is the persecution complex I have come across before with creationists? Yes that would fit.
He confirms my suspicions with the tale of a man who wrote a textbook in use in an Australian university, who then converted to Mackay's views. The text book is no longer used.
There is a very strong implication that this is because the man is now a Christian but Mackay never actually says this.
Of course, there are many other possible explanations for a text book no longer being used, science does constantly strive to move on of course, but the idea of censorship on the basis of religious belief fits nicely with his picture of world science based on atheism, lying, cheating and doing anything to prevent him getting the message out. *Sigh*.
Next we get various quotes to illustrate his opinion that if everything is evolving then Jesus and the Bible can't be true. Now it is worth noting here that it is only a fairly fundamentalist type of Christian that is prepared to ignore or deny the many independent lines of evidence which support evolutionary theory. Here is some evidence to back this up;
The clergy letters project contradicts his claim directly. On a more anecdotal basis here is a committed Christian talking about creationism.
First a quick bit of his lecture which covers off a topic which John himself covers;
Here is the full talk for those who are interested (including the initial prayers);
Back to John;
Next we get a picture of a robot of Darwin and the comment that;
"We all can that this has been designed - it's just obvious."This is the "argument from design". Of course the theory of evolution works by producing things which look designed anyway so this argument gets you precisely nowhere. This does not stop it being perhaps the most popular creationist argument I have heard.
Next we are told that Darwin's great great grandson is an atheist and says that he must be so because of his great great grand fathers theories. He also admits that this still leaves a large void to be filled.
These are nice little anecdotes or personal opinions and fall into the logical fallacy called the argument from authority. Taking quotes out of context is a classic creationist technique and I am also seeing plenty of "..." I wonder what words John has removed from the quotes? Can anyone get a copy of John's talk and the quotes in it? I would like to look into this further.
It is all very interesting that some people are religious, but then we all knew that to start with didn't we?
Why John thinks this makes a point for his case I don't know. Hopefully we will get some actual evidence soon.
John reads the quotes as if he is giving us the conclusion to a debate and the audience are nodding along with him again.
"If evolution is correct then god is irrelevant"Reflecting on this afterwards I can see that John is really raising the stakes here. Think evolution is true? Your eternal soul is at risk!
Now we start to see Biblical quotes - John 5 46-47;
"For if you believed Moses, you would believe Me, for he wrote about Me."John has a technique of asking the question and then answering it himself, with large amounts of conviction and just a hint of irony that it should even need to be explained.
"Which books did Moses write? Genesis."
This is his starting point then - Genesis is true.
I hope we get more in the way of actual evidence based reasoning but this doesn't seem likely from what we see so far.
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"Ok now for the evidence for Creation."Ooh great!
We are shown several slides with quotes of various "percentages of similarity" between men and apes and monkeys, in terms of various bits of DNA. John draws the audiences attention to the fact that there are lots of different percentages quoted.
"If they can't even agree on the numbers then . . . ?"His eyebrows are raised in pity for the poor scientists.
There is no doubt that these numbers do keep changing as more evidence comes in, but John fails to give any reason why this should mean that we should doubt the actual evidence of common descent.
"The evolutionists claim that If we look like them then we must be close relations."Wow straw-man argument extraordinaire! Is he really going to simply ignore all the evidence for this relationship? Looks like it.
For those interested here is a taste of the evidence for common descent.
So he's not even going to put up an argument against the actual claims of modern science then. Let's see what he does give us instead.
You guessed it - a list of how apes and men are actually DIFFERENT.
Again this is presented as if a grand conclusion has been reached.
We have heard no actual argument or case from John at all, but his tone of voice says that he has just proved his case.
This is rather like watching a great close up magician. The audience are nodding and shaking their heads in agreement with John and sharing in his gentle and condescending amusement at how daft scientists are for not realising this all along.
He has them looking exactly where he wants them to i.e. at a list of obvious differences, whilst the scientific case for the similarities is safely tucked away up his sleeve where it will never see the light of day.
What would this kind of performance do to kids brains? He is teaching kids that evolution sends their souls to hell and that scientists are incompetent liars and part of a conspiracy theory against Christians. Do we want this message given to our kids?
I won't list all the differences he gave, so I run the risk of accepting them all without verifying them, but I am happy to take this risk as they are not in fact pertinent to the issue of whether man evolved or not at all.
Two classic quotes from John in summary of this part of his "evidence";
"Most of the apes are ruled out as being too different from us, apart from the chimpanzees. They must confess these differences."Slides of monkey hands and feet;
"Look they are different aren't they?"A whispered "Oh yes!" from an elderly woman in front of me. Did she think that science ever claimed they were the same?
Now we get the "argument from incredulity" logical fallacy in full force;
"Do you really believe that we went from this to this?"Next his conclusion is plucked from thin air and hovers with no visible means of support;
"So there is plenty of evidence that we were crafted".A change of tack now with an aside that he has previously been challenged about something very important. He has realised that;
Christianity is the only religion where the evidence is important. You don't see any evidence in the other religions.As an atheist I have looked at several faiths and they all claim to have evidence just like he does - what can he mean by this? Does he genuinely not know about the claims of other religions? Or does the truth not bother him? The evidence that other religions claim evidence is hard to avoid let alone difficult to spot. Either he is making a claim which he has not even researched in the slightest degree or he is fibbing.
Next a side swipe at Darwin and "The Descent of Man". What is this crushing argument?
"Darwin wasn't there and never saw anything evolving."No one has been to the sun but we have a fairly good idea of how it shines. This really is school kid level argument.
The audience love it. *sigh*
Here you go folks, never mind the facts, just go straight for a sound bite!
John's next line of attack is that;
"All the bones for the ape-men would fit in one coffin."Now again just think about that for a second - so what? Can you logically draw any conclusion from that at all? No.
If you would like to see a little more of the evidence itself here is a good place to start.
Here are some more specious creationist arguments and the answers to them.
John now tells us that when he takes some skull casts into schools or when he shows the kids slides the kids can easily say which is a man and which is an ape.
Once again this is accepted by the audience as a key point. Once again when you think about it logically it actually gives no kind of argument at all.
Some summing up statements from John;
"If evolution is real why can't we see it?"I might as well point to my Yorkshire based study window and ask the same question of Australia. In any case we have seen evolution, both in the lab and outside it.
Here is a good basic summary together with a mass of links to further reading if you are interested.
Next we have the only detailed bit of "genetics" John covered in his whole talk;
"We share 50% of our genes with a banana. Does this mean we are 50% cannibals when we eat one? No. Why does sharing genes prove anything?"I won't spend too long on such a silly point but it does raise the issue I mentioned at the beginning of this piece about the religious tendency or preference for the absolute.
John wants proof and he wants it from a single item of evidence. He won't get it. The evidence for evolution theory has many independent lines of evidence, any one of which could show it to be false, but all of which supports it. Supports, but not proves.
When you look at the breadth and number of these lines of evidence then you can start to talk about being "confident that it is true" but no scientist ever claims 100% certainty about anything.
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John's next subject is codes. DNA is a code you see;
"We use these kinds of words in genetics"*Sigh*
Here are his examples;
"god is now here"becomes
"god is nowhere"with a 0% change in content (just move a space) we get 100% change in meaning.
A further 6.25% change of the w to a t gives this,
"god is not here"one woman in the audience actually gasped at this revelation.
I was sat wondering how on earth he could use such word games to make an argument against evolution.
Silly me, he didn't bother but just moved on as if he had made another key point.
This one made me smile;
"no 1 to love"- he he he
Now more quotes showing how the silly scientists keep on quoting different %'s of similarity.
We even get a side swipe at Craig Venter who is a Christian and a scientist working in genetics.
Here is a recent interview with Craig - judge for yourself what he thinks of Creationist claims.
Next we are shown a picture of cave paintings where we can see the recognisable pictures of a bison.
"This is clear proof that they haven't evolved since then."Ah-hem - well actually no it isn't. But so what if they hadn't evolved in a few thousand years anyway? Evolution happens at different speeds at different times and in different circumstances so such a geologically short period of time without any gross evolution being evidenced from a few stylised paintings is not surprising.
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Now we move into a section of John's talk which I think of as the "unsupported assumption medley", perhaps experience has shown him that by now he has the folks eating out of his hand and so he can just tell them what to think.
"Finches only ever turn into finches"Just add the word "because" to the end of each sentence and then wonder what his actual argument might be that he should have followed the "because" with.
"DNA is created and made"
"Man is the most creative creature - we are made by God the creator"
"DNA is not explainable from the natural universe"
I don't know because he did not offer any.
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We move into wider territory now with "the problem of evil", an argument I find has merit in the debate about the existence of an all powerful and all loving god.
He quotes David Attenborough very quickly so let's pause a second and look at what Attenborough has said on this subject;
Here is a full quote of Attenborough's point from here;
"My response," he says, "is that when Creationists talk about God creating every individual species as a separate act, they always instance hummingbirds, or orchids, sunflowers and beautiful things. But I tend to think instead of a parasitic worm that is boring through the eye of a boy sitting on the bank of a river in West Africa, [a worm] that's going to make him blind. And [I ask them], 'Are you telling me that the God you believe in, who you also say is an all-merciful God, who cares for each one of us individually, are you saying that God created this worm that can live in no other way than in an innocent child's eyeball? Because that doesn't seem to me to coincide with a God who's full of mercy'."John first addresses Attenborough's point by plugging a DVD in which he claims to show all the errors in Attenborough's thinking and to explain why this argument against god doesn't work.
For now he says he will just say that the worm dies when they enter the eye ball so Attenborough is not talking sense. Once again I am unable to follow his "logic" here.
If you want to know more about river blindness there is a good introductory article here.
Oh, by the way, you can see that John's only claim about the worm is not in fact true anyway.
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Er . . . what about the evidence for creation?
No, I didn't see any either.
What about evidence against evolution?
Logically fallacious waffle aplenty. Actual evidence, nil.
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A twenty minute question and answer session followed;
The following points were made by John;
Neanderthals are just diseased or deformed humans. This fits in with the biblical fall. It explains why human lifespans have reduced from 900 years plus to the present day much lower figure.Yes you heard it folks, people used to live to be 900 - the bible says so.
Next the comment that un-deformed Neanderthals were bigger than modern humans supports this.
He was challenged that none of his talk proved creationism and responded as follows;
If evolution is true then why are we not still evolving?Well we are and this is well evidenced in the literature. Assuming he knows about it why doesn't he mention this? If he doesn't know about it then why is he lecturing on the subject?
The big picture according to John is;
That science says that hydrogen eventually turned into people. What is does not explain is why people on ever give birth to people.This totally misrepresents what the theory of evolution actually explains.
Any mutations are degenerative. Atom's don't do codes.Two more for the "unsupported assertions" pile.
What sort of god would he be in evolution were true? Nature red in tooth and claw.The decrease in church attendances in the modern world are down to the teaching of evolution.
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This next bit of his talk was the most unpleasant, uncivilised and most chilling part of his talk;
Some of the teachers at the schools he has been to have objected to his talks on the basis that he objects to homosexuality.
"Thieves, drunkards and homosexuals are all heading for Hell."
"I know this is provocative but I can't change this message without feeling that I am being dishonest to Jesus."
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I approached him after his talk to ask him which schools he had been into this year. He would not say. I asked why and he said to protect the head teachers. I asked if the parents of the kids were told about his visit and he said sometimes yes they were.
I asked why all of them were not and in response got a lecture about the flood myths of the ancient near east proving the bible was true.
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Personal thoughts and summary;
Mackay is an accustomed public speaker who is easily heard and understood. He has a technique of emphasising comments to show how important and relevant they are and uses this constantly even though most of the time he is simply begging a question or stating a logical fallacy.
His homophobic comments were scary enough, let alone his belief that most of the scientific advances since the middle ages are a conspiracy against his own fundamentalist beliefs.
I take great comfort from the scarce attendance and the average age of the audience.
I chatted with Martin and Theresa after the talk (they arranged it). When I had told her I was going to ask John which schools he had been to, she told me she was sure he would tell me.
When I explained later that he had refused to say she instead asked me if I thought that other folks going into schools to talk should need to be advised to kids or just John should have to do this. I replied that someone going into maths class to teach that 2+2=5 should be. Other examples would be Alchemists teaching in Chemistry or the stork theory of human reproduction in Biology lessons. Schools are a place for science lessons not pseudo-science lessons.
Both Martin and Theresa said they would look at responding to this write up and I look forward to this.