Thursday, 19 November 2009

Revelry in ignorance – John Mackay in York 17/11/2009

Cross posted here.


I went along to see John Mackay talk about his personal disagreement with most of modern science at a small chapel in York this week. I had seen him in 2007 and wanted to see what if anything had changed and I wondered if he would be any more forthcoming this time about what he is doing in schools in the UK.

I have written up a transcript of his talk in Appendix A  if you would like to savor it in all it’s glory. If not then what follows are the edited highlights for your enjoyment and amazement.

Here are his main arguments and why I think they are poppycock;

The Arguments

The main theme of this talk was based around the biblical concept of “kinds” and the fact that genesis says that all things reproduce after their own kind. Seeing as this just sounds ridiculous on the face of it most “sophisticated” creationists call it a fancy word to make them sound “sciencey”; Baraminology is the term they use – do a google on it to uncover some huge heaps of silly stuff. Now, this piece of mental gymnastics is necessary for even the staunchest young earth creationists ( and John “Darwin is wrong because god is always right.” Mackay is one of the staunchest) to help them explain the blindingly obvious aspects of evolution that anyone can see with their own two eyes i.e. that offspring vary and that we can select from these offspring for characteristics we desire and voila we are up to our knees in cock-a-poos and fractal sprouts. Indeed this topic was part of Darwin’s own argument in “On the Origin of Species”.

What John does here is a common creationist tactic of simply making an unsupported claim. His claim is that variation is limited. He doesn’t tell us what it is limited by or how the mechanism of variation somehow knows how to stop at a certain point. It’s just obvious that it just does. Otherwise his fundamental version of christianity would tell him that his bible isn’t true, and that is something that can’t be so.

He puts his argument across like this;

“In it’s simplest construct – Darwin says that he can see a little change in a little time – therefore you can get a big change over a long time.”

Now if you do read the full transcript of his talk you will see that he never argues with the “little change in a little time” bit. In fact, quite the contrary, he just keeps on repeating it for lots of different things including dogs, cabbages, finches, frogs, moths and even your feet (I’ll come back to this in a moment). In fact he just keeps on repeating it as if it makes some kind of point in his favour. Every time he gives us another example his voice just drips with the sense of another debating point scored from those silly scientists. His audience soon pick up on this and tuts and sighs ring out as he wheels yet another organism into view.

But of course he is only giving us great long lists to back this bit up because he has nothing to back up his claim that lots of small changes can’t add up into a big one.

It’s a good job that the talk was given on the ground floor because John would appear to be vulnerable to being persuaded that whilst steps exist, staircases are a figment of the imagination and he would be rendered unable to walk up stairs when required.

Anyway, along the way we get some fairly strong hints that all mutations are negative, but he never quite says this directly. Perhaps he is a little shy of making such a claim with such a huge pile of evidence stacked up against it. I don’t know. But I think he must be sorely tempted to claim it anyway for two main reasons.

First of all, a theme of degeneracy and suffering are all the rage to his sect where the actual eating of the actual apple actually happened. From such “fruiticide” death and suffering literally entered the world leading inevitably to an Ark stuffed with baby dinosaurs and two of each “kind”. So negative mutations were adopted by creationists as a neat way to wedge the evidence into their ready made conclusion.

Secondly, the latest creationist craze (Intelligent Design) involves staring intelligently up at the ceiling and asking where the information in DNA comes from. Sigh. So of course he can’t accept that information can be generated by the process of evolution, no that has to come from God.

He doesn’t give us much detail on what mutations actually are. All we get is this;

“Mutations are a small change in the DNA.”

You see he doesn’t want his audience to know that some of the ways mutations occur generate extra information. Nuff said.

John’s heartfelt case is that God has built in a certain amount of variation into each kind of organism and whilst selective breeding and even natural selection can bring this out it is ultimately limited to the expression of what god put there in the first place. You might have already guessed, but in the interest of full disclosure I can confirm that he doesn’t tell us anything at all about the several large piles of evidence that reveals this to be a simple lie.

I have given a few examples in Appendix B from here but there are hundreds more.

So, John says such variation is not evolution, it is instead merely adaptation. That’s it. He just tells us that this isn’t evolution. So there you go. It isn’t.

Oh hang on, I missed out his killer argument for why adaptation is limited. Brace yourself. You know how athletes can, if given a few weeks or months, adapt to high altitude environments? Yes? Well they can’t adapt to living underwater without drowning can they?

Look, seriously, I am not making this up – you should read the transcript.

The rest of his talk mainly consisted of throwing stones at a few examples of famous evolutionary experiments or observations. This is another common creationist tactic. You see, in their world things are either 100% right or 100% wrong, like the bible and er… well the bible mainly. So anyway, in this way of thinking, if they can just poke one little hole in any one tiny little area of evolution then the whole thing must be wrong and it is only a matter of time before we are giving them our money.

I cover off a few of his false claims below.

Next up is his take on the fossil evidence for evolution. There isn’t any. Well you see he showed us pictures of some fossils that look exactly like creatures that are still alive today.
Can you believe that none of his fellow believers have a clue that this is no problem for the theory of evolution at all?

This next point of his I think is a new species (or kind) of logical fallacy. I don’t think it has been described by science before so I better get this right. Let’s call it the argument from uncontrollable sarcasm.

To achieve this feat of verbal excellence you need to studiously ignore any hint of constructing an actual argument and just be sarcastic. Here you go;

He showed us a slide with the front page of National Geographic; “Was Darwin wrong?”

Then he said this;

“They say in large print “No – the evidence is overwhelming”. Have you had your heart pills? Now – notice that the print get smaller. Here we have; “The fossil record shows a movie in which 999 out of every 1000 frames has been lost.”. Some movie – you don’t have a movie – and this movie is called evolution. Now you can’t get a degree with 99.9% of the evidence for your doctorate missing can you?”

So he simply ignores all the other evidence covered in that very magazine.

Is it just me or does it annoy you as well when, on the one hand, creationists are always complaining about missing links in the fossil record and then on the other hand they are complaining about the fact that science can explain it? Of course, in fact science has never done anything but complain about the highly fragmented nature of the fossil record. Of course John has subtly implied that science holds it up as the main evidence supporting evolution. Clever daftness eh?

He does also use a rather subtle distraction argument which I imagine he crafted with some care. He sprinkles this about all over the talk. Are you ready to try to hang on to your wits? Here we go;

“You define evolution as change – then call all change evolution – you accept any change such as size or colour or even which country they live in as different species.”

Devastating isn’t it? Oh no I mean just silly.

Here is the answer;

“Yes you do. So what? No you don’t.”

Here are a few hair raising quotes;

“Darwin is wrong because god is always right.”

“You can find plenty of opinions to disagree with the bible but the facts don’t.”

“ Here’s something that most professors don’t know – we have smaller brains than Neanderthals.”

“Kids – there were no cauliflowers in the Garden of Eden!”
“ Now they can have it how they want- but either climate change is new or it isn’t. They can’t have it both ways.”

“Darwin set out to disprove the concept in Genesis “producing after their own kind”.”

“ If you go shoeless on holiday your feet hurt – then the skin on the souls of your feet get thicker – you have an ability to make more skin – but when you put your shoes back on the extra skin peels off – your body detects the presence of a shoe.”

“ In schools they tell us “no religion” so I just say I will talk about the evolution of mankind and there is no problem. ha ha”

Here are a few examples of his lack of ethics in action;

He shows us the headline from New Scientist “Darwin was Wrong” and simply says,

“This article says that if you take Darwinism at face value and test it, it doesn’t work – read it yourself or ask questions later”

Here is an extract from the editorial that accompanied the headline;

“As we celebrate the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth, we await a third revolution that will see biology changed and strengthened. None of this should give succour to creationists, whose blinkered universe is doubtless already buzzing with the news that “New Scientist has announced Darwin was wrong”. Expect to find excerpts ripped out of context and presented as evidence that biologists are deserting the theory of evolution en masse. They are not.”

The headline actually referred to the phenomenon of lateral gene transfer which suggests the some of the early branches of the tree of life join back up together.

He set’s up the following straw men arguments;

  • Science claims that climate change is new.
  • Evolution should happen to everything all the time.
  • Salamanders evolved into frogs.
  • Any difference between two organisms means they are counted as two species.
  • National Geographic thinks Darwin is being seriously doubted.
  • New Scientist thinks evolution is wrong.

Lessons to learn

  • Science journalists and headline writers – just look at the ammunition you are giving someone with John’s rhetorical flair and lack of ethics!
  • The main issue here is religious fundamentalism – that is why John does what he does – he is after souls for his sect, none of this is about science.
  • There is definitely a role of people like the BCSE and the NCSE to play in attacking John’s scientific claims for what they are without attacking his faith. He actually uses such attacks to strengthen his religious arguments and this works with the already converted -certainly a core of martyr complex runs through his whole approach.
  • No – that doesn’t mean atheists should not be allowed to make their case as well, but these are different aspects of the debate. I happen to think that the approach of atheists like Dawkins and Coyne is effective with folks not yet fully taken in by the likes of John. I also happen to think that it is worth pointint out to many of John’s faithful followers that a few folks, like the pope and the archbishop of canterbury, have no problem at all with the evidence for the age of the earth or the evolutionary tree of life. It might just make them think.
  • Creationists are VERY good at asking for money – just look at how many times they do it in the transcript.
  • I don’t want this guy anywhere near my kids school.

Any questions, comments or clarifications are welcome (mark at


  1. Psiloi, just wanted to say that I left a message to Andrew on his ID blog in support of your comments.
    Given the current moderation regime there, I doubt it will see the light of day.
    Anyway, thanks for the link to your web-site in your name-handle-thingy.

  2. Well, consider me gobsmacked.
    My comment got past moderation!
    Perhaps this is a sign of a change in policy?
    Stay tuned.
    ID in the United Kingdom

  3. Well done - a few of mine are still missing.

    I replied to the comment from anonymous by asking him if he had actually read the Lenski report as it precisely showed his claim to be false.

    I guess showing someone they are wrong is insulting.