So another month, another Centre for Inquiry event and another series of four reviews on the talks provided.
This time the theme for the four lectures was ‘Science and Religion‘- a topic close to my heart, and the speakers were Dr. Jack Cohen– a reproductive biologist, Simon Singh– a popular science writer (and the defendant in an important upcoming courtcase), Stephen Law– a philosopher and provost of the London Centre for Inquiry and Dr. Raj Persaud– a psychiatrist who frequently appears on TV (and has recently been embroiled in some scandal). Baroness Mary Warnock an influential philosopher pulled out at the last minute so unfortunately her talk on ‘religion as humanism’ was missing, which was a shame as it sounded interesting.
This post will be covering the talk of the first speaker Professor Jack Cohen titled ‘The Evidence for Evolution’.
The first thing to note was that the title of the talk was actually a bit misleading as Dr. Cohen spent very little time on the evidence for evolution, dismissing the issue by saying that by now, with all the evidence from genetics, geology, fossils and hundreds of other avenues the matter was resolved, evolution was undeniable. This might not have satisfied any creationists but for the audience attending the event such comments were controversy free and met with general approval.
At this point I should add that the evidence for evolution really is undeniable so Dr. Cohen’s comments really should be controversy free regardless of the audience- and it’s simply a mark of the success of the creationist/intelligent design movement that such remarks might be controversial amongst the general public. If you look at it from an unbiased perspective, there are of course, many controversies over aspects of evolution such as the pace at which it occurs and so on but the general theory is now widely recognised in the scientific community as being so well supported that it is basically an established fact. Creationists and Intelligent Design proponents dispute this but they are motivated to do so due to religious beliefs which is apparent if you spend anytime investigating the creation/evolution debate.
Now, getting back to Dr. Cohen’s talk, after explaining that his talk wouldn’t be a lecture on the various lines of evidence for evolution he got onto what his talk was really about- a book called Omphalas by Philip Henry Gosse published in 1857 (2 years before the origin of species). Gosse, a member of the extremely conservative Christian sect the Plymouth Brethern, was a paradoxical figure with a deep interest in the natural world and scientific inquiry and an equally deep belief in the absolute literal truth of the bible. His publishing of Omphalas was his attempt to reconcile the two driving and diverging passions of his life, as he attempted to account for why the evidence that scientists and naturalists were uncovering about the natural world contradicted the account of creation in the bible.
Dr. Cohen explained that Gosse was a very intelligent man who was simply incapable of dismissing all the evidence he knew existed that the earth was extremely ancient even though he realised it conflicted with the 6,00o – 10,000 year old earth that a literal interpretation of the biblical account of creation/history requires. His solution, which Dr. Cohen at once admired and considered absurd, was to argue that the earth had indeed been created by God 6,000 – 10,000 years ago like the bible says, however, it had also been created with the appearence of a fully developed ‘history’ which made it appear to be millions or billions of years old. Thus, for Gosse although dinosaurs never actually existed millions of years ago he would happily admit that all the scientific evidence available would suggest that they had.
Gosse also utilised this argument to explain why he believed that Adam despite being created as a man in his 20’s-30’s would appear to have a ‘biological history’. Hence, Adam despite not having a mother and never being in a womb would still have a navel even though he was never connected to an umbilical cord (which incidentally is why the title of Goose’s book was Omphalos which means ‘belly button’). Gosse invented the terms prochronic and diachronic to distinguish between the two time periods with prochronic applying to all things made by God during the act of creation that appear to have historically occurred (i.e. the dinosaurs, Adams childhood) and diachronic applying to everything that actually occurs after that (all history after Adam & Eve).
The idea overall reminded me of the character of Slartibartfast from Douglas Adam’s science fiction masterpiece The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. I have been listening to this recently in audiobook format and remember Slartibartfast, the alien architect who was commissioned to design the earth, commenting about the difficulty of adding all the sediment layers and making sure all the dinosaur fossils where in the right places. Essentially the character of Slartibartfast is the kind of creator that Gosse proposed!
Dr. Cohen’s main response to all of this was to suggest that, while he didn’t believe in any of it, he found that Gosse’s form of creationism provided an eminently more sensible version of creationism than the modern forms of creationism and intelligent design which, instead of recognising the evidence, seek to challenge and overturn scientific evidence. If creationists believed in Gosse’s version of creationism, Dr. Cohen pointed out, there would be no motivation to construct ‘creation museums’ portraying humans living alongside dinosaurs or to bother with time consuming court cases trying to argue that creationism/intelligent design are valid scientific theories that belong in science lessons.
There would also, he noted, be no way of disproving the claim as it was no more falsifiable than the idea that God created the universe 5 minutes ago and gave the universe the appearance of being billions of years old and everyone on earth memories of having existed prior to this point. However, this didn’t particularly concern Dr. Cohen as he considered the iea that to tally what we observe to what is mentioned in a book ‘we wrote’ two thousand years ago to be an absurd endeavour from the start.
Dr. Cohen was thus not, throughout his talk, particularly concerned with advocating this as anything more than an interesting alternative explanation that could be offered to modern creationists as a more reasonable approach to the issue of the scientific evidence for evolution/history of the earth than approaches which bring them into conflict with science. In a way Dr. Cohen was offering a position reminiscent of Stephen J. Gould’s famous Non-Overlapping-Magisterium which contended that religion and science need not be in conflict as they address entirely unrelated aspects of life. His advocacy of this kind of position was not as strong as Gould’s famous dichotomy however and I didn’t get the impression that he had a deep respect for the philosophical teachings found in religions which Gould seemed to have.
However, for some reason in the Q & A after the talk many of the questioners seemed to be rather confused as to whether or not Dr. Cohen actually believed Gosse’s theory himself (also one particularly odd woman went on a long, unrelated rant about how circumcision in the US was a kind of religious and cultural crusade). I personally thought it was quite obvious he did not believe Gosse’s ideas but such a misunderstanding, I suppose, could be due to the fact that Dr. Cohen is 75 and at times due to a combination of microphone issues, facing away from the audience and fast mumbling, he was quite difficult to understand. When answering questions and speaking directly to the audience however Dr. Cohen shined and revealed that at 75 he still has a sharp wit and a sharp tongue.
Regardless of the presentation issues it was certainly an interesting discussion however I remain unconvinced that many creationists could be swayed into supporting the kind of position outlined in Omphalos especially since it suggests that God is kind of a cosmic trickster who created a load of evidence that contradicts the real account of creation he provided in the bible. Dr. Cohen acknowledged this issue and finished off his talk by announcing that some theists who accept a position similar to Gosse’s face the rebuttal that:
“Look at all the things God had done for the unbeliever and all he did for the believer was create the bible…”