Women are Funny.

Do not, under any circumstances, Google "funny women" to find an image for your blog post.

Do not, under any circumstances, Google “funny women” to find an image for your blog post.

When you type the phrase, “women comedians” into Google the second suggestion that appears is “women comedians aren’t funny.”Now I’ve no idea how Google works, probably librarian-trained crows, but this does seem like a worryingly common-place opinion. I have had a discussion fairly recently which involved the other person saying, “But women just aren’t funny” which made me concerned that the person I was talking to had never met or spoken to a woman. And the person I was talking to was a woman! Probably still is.

It’s not up to me to decide what’s funny. What people find humorous, while sharing many commonalities, varies wildly and so does what people say and do in an effort to be funny. Farts! This variation is obviously true of women who much like snowflakes, fingerprints or human beings are all individual and unique. Some women will be funnier on average than other women and funnier on average than some men.  The funniest woman is likely as funny as the funniest man. I don’t even though how you’d reliably judge “funniest”. What unit would it be measured in? MilliMillicans?

It’s not up to me to defend women. They are perfectly capable of defending themselves. Declaring that women simply lack the ability to be funny is odd though. While there are many theories as to what is humorous, one prevalent idea is that laughter comes with incongruity. This theory states that humour is perceived at the moment of realisation of incongruity between a concept and the real thing in relation to that concept. If this were the case (and it certainly seems to be at least some of the time) if you claim that women can’t be funny then you are claiming that women can’t conceive of ideas and situations not matching. This is an ironically difficult notion to conceive of.

Oestrogen and laughter are apparently not contra-indicated.

Oestrogen and laughter are apparently not contra-indicated.

I’m not especially interested in whether the ideas that women aren’t funny or that women aren’t as funny as men are true or not. They’re blatantly not.  The Funny Women Awards have just celebrated their 11th year with the 2013 winners being duo Twisted Loaf. The Funny Women Awards unlikely to have years where they can’t award anything due to women being unusually mirthless for a select 365 days. There are multiple examples of very funny women including Sarah Pascoe (@sarapascoe), Sarah Millican (@SarahMillican75), Rachel Parris (@iamrachelparris), and Gabby Hutchinson Crouch (@Scriblit). I have purposefully not made this list extensive as I am sure to miss out some excellent individuals and some idiot is bound to sweep a paw across the list and state that “None of dem are funny” as if it were an objective truism rather than a subjective comedic preference.

I’m more interested in considering the arguments people use to justify this opinion and whether they stand up to scrutiny (they won’t). I’m going to use a vague biopsychosocial approach to do this. Not because I think detractors of female comedy, or as it is sometimes known “comedy” do so but because it’s a reasonably simple way to manage the ideas.


Evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller (when he wasn’t busy tweeting about students being fat) proposed that human characteristics like humour evolved by sexual selection. Sexual selection: good name for a part of evolutionary theory, bad name for a box of confectionary. He argues that humour (which he states has little survival value) emerged as an indicator of other traits that were of survival value, such as intelligence. On this basis if you argue that women aren’t or can’t be funny you would be arguing that either women can’t use humour to show their intelligence (clearly wrong), that they can but they don’t (clearly wrong because of examples) or that if they did men might not appreciate it (ahem). Women are showing intelligence through humour and people are ignoring it or at worse threatened by it? They would have to be pretty small-minded, insecure people. At this stage you can assume I am giving meaningful looks.

Another evolutionary psychology theory takes a break from copying Rudyard Kipling and argues that, like male deer clashing antlers, humour is produced by males competitively to impress potential mates for breeding. Consistent with this theory is research that females indicate a preference for mates who makes them laugh, whereas males prefer a mate who laughs at their humour.

However the data are not entirely consistent with this view. Most studies find male humour appeals most to other men.  In purely evolutionary terms, if you are in search of a mate to breed with, attracting a bunch of guffaws and their supposed sexual advances from members of the same gender isn’t the best move. Secondarily this theory in no way explains why women can’t do the same thing. If you’re arguing for a theory, it’s not really enough to state that they just don’t. Any attempts by MRI to catch the ovaries strangling jokes before they leave the body have thus far failed. So we’re left with a theory that tries to make humour the exclusive domain of rutting men, but fails like a pleasant look on Piers Morgan’s face.


Lee Mack on Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs has said fewer women become comedians because they are not so inclined to show-off or be competitive in conversation. Lee Mack stated “I am only quoting other scientific reports on it.  When men sit around together and talk they are very competitive… When you get six women in a room together they share a lot more…and it’s a more interactive. “This idea may have links to the evolutionary theories seen previously.

The concept that men are more likely to do stand-up comedy or just be funny because they are more competitive than women is pervasive. Generally, research into how groups of single and mixed sexes converse agree with what Lee Mack is saying. A sentence I never thought I’d type. But these are just tendencies. Women may be more likely to support each other in conversation, but that doesn’t mean they all do it all the time. They can also be competitive and try to show off. Same goes for men for support and chances are it’s largely context dependent.

These studies investigated conversation and weren’t about being funny and/or a stand-up comedian. Just because a woman is on average more likely not to be competitive in conversation, doesn’t mean she won’t change her style of interaction when “performing” to her friends or performing onstage as a comedian.

It was depressingly difficult to find a picture of a female clown that wasn't trying to be "sexy".

It was depressingly difficult to find a picture of a female clown that wasn’t trying to be “sexy”.

Finally and more importantly, competition and showing off doesn’t necessarily equate to funnier. For some reason people who make this argument seem to be focussing on one style of comedy. One-upmanship is fine for some things (human pyramids and so on), but a lot of comedy relies on interaction, support and listening e.g. improvisation, sketch comedy. Stand-up itself doesn’t need to be competitive as such and many a skilled comedian can build a hilarious act through audience interaction and support. Just watch Dara Ó Briain open a show.

Social (and some psychology)

The entertainment industry seems to agree with the idea that women are not or can’t be funny, or at least can’t be as funny as men. One figure tossed around is that only 10% of stand-up comedians are women and it’s relatively rare to see more than one woman on one of the ubiquitous comedy panel shows.  I don’t have the data to argue that many more women want to be or are funny and hard-working enough to be successful stand-up comedians and lack or don’t see the opportunity, but given societal and prevalent psychological bias it seems a likely explanation.

It would seem that across an alarming swathe of society, humour and the production of humour is not valued or even recognised in women.  If you think women aren’t funny and as a result ignore it when they are then what’s the incentive for women to be funny? Lo and behold you fulfil your own bias. Or you try to. if you hold the ridiculous opinion that women aren’t funny and as proof try to point out a non-existent lack of funny women then by your own logic you only have yourself to blame. Luckily there are women who defy this societal bias to produce excellent comedy.

Research shows humorous items are often remembered more successfully, in a phenomenon known as the humour effect. For example in one study (linked to already in these ramblings) related to providing funny captions, the items judged as funnier were remembered better. The analyses also provided evidence for a humour-based retrieval bias.  Individuals of both genders tended to misattribute humorous captions to male writers. This was true both for misremembering captions whose author’s sex the participants knew and for when participants were only guessing the sex of a caption author. So again it’s not that women can’t or aren’t being funny, it’s that due to existing societal bias, when they are you don’t remember or worse, you remember the humour and think it was a man that did it. Again you only have yourself to blame for thinking there are no funny women. “I don’t remember ever doing this!” you might shout. Quite.

The Guff at the Long-Awaited End

Ultimately there appears to be no strong argument that women can’t be funny or aren’t funny or aren’t as funny as men.  If you think there are, then you are contributing to the biased social and psychological forces that contrive give that appearance.  This isn’t surprising and I’m sorry if any of this has come across as patronising.  I don’t think that people who hold that opinion have even though about it that much other than as a subtle impact of prejudice. Then why bother taking-apart the arguments behind women being “not funny” at all? To paraphrase Josh Whedon, “I’ve got a theory, it could be bunnies…”


A Bad Case of the Zombies: Could a virus really cause World War Z?

A zombie playing the sousaphone. I wanted one playing the trombone because of the tenuous trombone/bone/zombie connection. Ho hum.

A zombie playing the sousaphone. I wanted one playing the trombone because of the tenuous trombone/bone/zombie connection. Ho hum.

The other day I went to see the film, World War Z. It was fine and thus ends my review of my enjoyment of it. Anyway, the real World War Z will of course be between those who pronounce it “zed” and those who pronounce it “zee”. World War Z is based on the 2006 novel by Max Brooks (a follow-up to his 2003 book, The Zombie Survival Guide). Both books are excellent and if you’re not too bored of zombie-based fiction then you should read them. I say this because there seems to have been a recent upsurge on things about zombies of some kind. The zombies are everywhere, which I suppose is ironic. The film stars Bradley Pitt as a retired United Nations employee who must travel the world to find a way to stop a zombie-like pandemic.

In the film being a zombie (Zombieism? Esprit de corpse? Zombosis?) appears to be caused by a viral infection, primarily caught by being bitten by a zombie. Those who are bitten appear to die within about 30 seconds and then reanimate with slightly cloudy eyes. They then become very aggressive and begin to chase down victims to bite them and spread the infection. They do not appear to eat their victims; rather keep on going just generally being runny and a bit bitey. I say runny as in they run a lot rather than hinting at any advanced state of decomposition. Although eventually the zombies do appear to go a bit rotten.

I accept that all this doesn’t have to be dead-on realistic (ahem) but there are a few problems with the concept. It’s assumed that the mass zombification is caused by a viral pandemic. Yet time from being bitten to turning into a zombie appears to be too rapid for this to be the case. It would take a bit longer for whatever virus it is to circulate, invade cells, hijack their genetic machinery and start producing copies of the virus and manifest symptoms. Especially given that the virus appears to completely take over the host’s central nervous system and musculature while leaving the rest of them deceased. Like a more infectious version of Britain’s Got Talent.

While viruses certainly can be deadly they generally need the thing they’re in to be alive to make more virus and spread them. This might be by sneezing in their co-worker’s face, not washing their hands, licking fruit bowls etc. The zombie virus doesn’t appear to need this. It kills the host and still somehow has them running around. Where is the host’s energy coming from? Could the humans all just hide and wait for the zombies to fall apart? Granted this would make the film quite dull. Nobody wants to watch a film where people eat sandwiches in a bunker waiting for their enemy to decompose. Although Panic Room is OK.

The idea however that an infection can control its host’s behaviour to help its spread is well established in nature. For example, malaria is an infectious disease spread by mosquitoes, caused by one of five species of the Apicomplexan parasite, Plasmodium. Most deaths from malaria are caused by Plasmodium falciparum. It really is an awful disease with the WHO estimating that in 2010 there were 219 million cases of malaria resulting in 660,000 deaths. As I’ve hinted, Plasmodium can change the behaviour of mosquitoes to spread itself faster and wider.

The common Plasmodium Puppet. Also known as the mosquito.

The common Plasmodium Puppet. Also known as the mosquito.

Once in a mosquito, Plasmodium needs time to move to the mosquito’s gut to mate and reproduce to form ookinetes. These are a sort of mobile egg. The story of Plasmodium really ruins Humpty Dumpty. Ookinetes develop into sporozoites (Literally: “animal seed”. Don’t go planting your hamsters though!) and travel to the mosquito’s salivary gland. Prior to this it doesn’t do the Plasmodium much good for the mosquito to bite someone with the risk the mosquito might get killed during the attempt. So Plasmodium tries to alter the mosquito’s behaviour to prevent this. For a mosquito to get your blood it has to drive its proboscis through your skin and find a blood vessel. The longer this takes the greater its chances of being noticed and squashed. Like if McDonalds killed you if you queued too long rather than years later of heart disease. If a mosquito finds it too difficult to draw blood they’ll quickly give up.  A mosquito with ookinetes in it will abandon biting quicker than an uninfected one.

However once the sporozoites reach the mosquito’s mouth, it benefits Plasmodium for the mosquito to bite as much as possible.  The Plasmodium at this stage appears to make the mosquito “hungrier”, causing it to drink more blood and visit more hosts to get it. In these ways and more Plasmodium is manipulating its hosts behaviour to reproduce itself and spread more easily.

Some species of tapeworm live in the three-spined stickleback but also spend part of their lifecycle in the birds that eat these fish. The tapeworms can alter the behaviour of the fish making it more likely they’re caught and eaten. As you’d expect, sticklebacks try to keep away from heron. They stay away from the surface and if a heron appears they dart away. Sticklebacks infected with tapeworm appear to become more fearless, staying near the surface to feed even if a heron is about. These are more likely to be eaten and the tapeworm gets where it wants to go; into the heron.

Similarly, Toxoplasma gondii, a protozoan of “don’t go near the litter tray if you’re pregnant” fame, needs to move between rats and cats and back again to complete its lifecycle.  A healthy, uninfected rat will normally become anxious when it smells cat urine staying away from where they smelled it.  They will literally piss off. Rats infected with Toxoplasma however do not become anxious when they catch the scent of a cat, do not avoid it and increase their chances of becoming dinner.

Toxoplasma also appears to alter the psychology of humans it infects. Men infected with Toxoplasma become less willing to follow rules and less worried about being punished for breaking these rules. Women infected with Toxoplasma become more outgoing. Toxoplasma: the party protozoa! I probably shouldn’t get into marketing. It is not fully known how this occurs although there is some evidence that Toxoplasma increases production of the neurotransmitter dopamine and in males, increases testosterone levels.  It should be noted that this evidence is largely from rats. A lot of evidence is.

Afraid? Are you a man or a mouse? Or are you infected with Toxoplasma?

Afraid? Are you a man or a mouse? Or are you infected with Toxoplasma?

All of our examples have been parasites, but the infection is World War Z is cited as a virus, which I guess technically can be seen as a parasite. Can a virus alter its host’s behaviour to aid its spread? You bet your hot butter on toast it can! The baculovirus, infects the caterpillars of the European gypsy moth and causes them to climb to the tree-tops. Once there they die and liquefy, releasing thousands of viral particles to rain down and infect more unfortunate caterpillars. In this way Lymantria dispar forces the caterpillar to turn itself into a piñata and explode itself, raining down sweets i.e. a nasty virus, on other unsuspecting future piñata-pillars.

Rabies is another viral disease that manipulates its hosts’ behaviour. Rabies causes acute encephalitis in warm-blooded animals, including humans. More than 55,000 people, mostly in Africa and Asia, die from rabies every year. There are three stages of rabies progression. The first is characterised by behavioural changes and is known as the prodromal stage. The second is the excitative stage. This stage is also known as “furious rabies” as the infected animal is exceptionally aggressive, hyper-reactive and will bite with little provocation. The virus is present in the nerves and saliva and as such the route of infection is usually, but not always, by a bite. With the encephalitis induced aggression and biting, the virus’ manipulation to aid its spread becomes clear. The third stage is the paralytic stage (due to motor neuron damage) which is followed by death.

The excitative stage of rabies is the example we’ve seen that is most similar to our zombie virus and in fact in the film the zombie pandemic (a good name for a band) is initially mistaken for an outbreak of rabies. So could a virus cause the changes seen in World War Z and cause a zombie pandemic with Brad Pitt staring concerned across various international scenes? Probably not, but parasites and viruses can certainly manipulate their hosts behaviour in a variety of subtle and not-so-subtle ways. Although ultimately it might be preferable to have your emotions and behaviour manipulated by watching a film. Panic Room is OK.

On The Origin Of Species: The Musical


The curtains go up. On the Origin of Species, published on 24 November 1859 by Charles Darwin is considered (correctly I would argue) to be the foundation of evolutionary biology. Its original full title was On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life which was later changed around 1872 to the shorter, The Origin of Species. It was perhaps felt that “the preservation of favoured races” sounded dubiously racist when in fact this wasn’t what the title was referring to at all. Of course the last thing anybody would do is falsely co-opt evolutionary theory to promote their own despicable and prejudice agenda. Right?

Darwin’s book introduced the scientific theory of natural selection. I am aware of the excellent work of Alfred Russell Wallace and you should definitely watch Bill Bailey’s brilliant TV series on the topic. However I’ve probably got enough work on my hands tenuously claiming that one set of original prose about natural selection should be a musical, without throwing Wallace into the mix. Notable in that it was not written specifically for a scientifically literate audience, The Origin of Species methodically and eloquently sets out the evidence and arguments for  the theory that the diversity of life on Earth arose by common descent through a branching pattern of evolution.  All any book by Dan Brown can say is that it’s thoroughly absorbent. It is not too much of a leap to say that modern evolutionary theory is the unifying concept of the life science and that little in biology makes sense without it. It’s a good theory.

Is the theory of evolution so good however that it can’t be improved by singing? Musical theatre as an art form combines songs, spoken dialogue, acting, and dance to communicate a story and its emotional content. It’s a bit popular. 12.27 million tickets were purchased for Broadway musical shows in 2007-2008. In 2007 total ticket revenues in Central London in the major commercial and grant-aided theatres were £469.7 million. Musicals are not just popular in theatre. Les Misérables, as a film aided by the singing of Anne Hathaway and Hugh Jackman while Russell Crowe was also there won 3 Oscars and earned £8.1 million in its opening weekend in the UK.

Just because something is popular though doesn’t make it good, he typed realising he’d already used his Dan Brown reference. Popular UK sitcom My Family anyone? Things could always do with a bit of added science and I would definitely watch a musical about evolution. Additionally there is some evidence that music can aid with learning as well as being useful in studying the brain’s natural plasticity. The Origin of Species: The Musical then seems like an ideal form of science entertainment. Primarily though I just thought it would be a fun idea to think and write about. So without much further ado, introducing The Origin of Species: The Musical!



The introduction mainly establishes Darwin’s credentials as a naturalist.

Song: Naturalist In The UK

I am a scientist
I am a naturalist
I know what moths I want and
I know how to get them
I wanna catch butterfly.

Chapter 1

Primarily deals with animal husbandry, plant breeding and selective breeding.  Darwin describes the astonishing diversity of pigeon breeds given that that they all descend from a single species of rock pigeon.

Song: Crazy Little Things Called Doves

These things, called doves, explained, no religion,
These things called doves , descend, from a rock pigeon,
Selective breeding!
To get these little things called doves.

Chapter 2 and 3

Darwin argues the arbitrary distinction between species and varieties with species merely being distinctive and well-established varieties. He then explores how varieties become separate species and introduces the concept of natural selection.

Song: Taxonomy And Variety

Taxonomy and Variety, work together, to help describe species
Side by side for example, defining different types of trees.

Chapter 4

Darwin further describes natural selection through the relationships of all living beings and the physical conditions of their environment.  He also proposes sexual selection to explain sexually dimorphic features such as lion manes, peacock tails and some bird song.

Song: Girls Just Want To Have Good Genes

I’m at home, make myself look fine
Mother nature says when you gonna pick a genetic line?
Oh mother dear I’ll pick the best suited ones
And girls they want to have good genes
And men just want to have good genes.

Chapter 5

Here Darwin discusses the effects of use, disuse and inheritance.

Song: Lamarck The Disproved Theory Sings

With untested thought proclaim:
Use it or lose it is the game.
Lamarck the disproved theory sings
This kind of inheritance isn’t a thing.

 Chapter 6

Darwin discusses the existence of intermediate forms and then whether natural selection could produce complex specialised structures. (It can.)

Song: Stuck In The Middle With Gills

Water to the left of me, land to the right
Here I am, stuck in the middle with gills.

Chapter 7

This chapter covers the evolution of instincts using experimental evidence from ants and honey bees.

Song: Ain’t No Hexagons

Ain’t no hexagons with bees gone
Ain’t no swarm with bees away
Ain’t no hexagons with bees gone
They don’t make that honeycomb
Anytime bees go away.

Chapter 8

In this chapter Darwin addresses the idea that species have special characteristics which prevent hybrids from being fertile and preserve separate species.

Song: Bonnie Facts Of Stock Breeding

Oh you’ll take the hybrid and I’ll take the within-species breed
And I’ll preserve the genome before you.

Chapter 9 and 10

Here we get a bit of rock and look at how the geological record appears to show forms of life suddenly arising, without the multiple transitional fossils expected from gradual changes. Darwin then easily explains this by exploring the science and relative rarity of fossilisation.

Song: You Are Not A Stone

But you are not a stone
You just decayed to goo
Conditions didn’t apply
For you to mineralise
So you are not a stone.

Chapter 11 and 12

The biogeographical evidence is explored and Darwin notes the importance of barriers to migration in the formation of species.

Song: Island In The Sea

Island in the sea
That is where we are
Something between
Half our species gone
Go on breed with me
We’ll start to adapt
And given some mutations, ah-ha
We’ll begin our speciation, ah-ha.

Chapter 13

Darwin observes that classification depends on grouping based on degrees of similarity.

Song: I Believe I Can Classify

I believe I can classify
Pick matching wings and classify
Using nature’s morphology,
To recognise homology.


At last we have the big finale where Darwin reviews the previous chapter and expresses his hope that evolutionary theory might produce revolutionary changes in many fields of natural history. It did.

There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.

Now to get some musical skill, incorporate the differences between different editions of the book and write this!

A Fish With No Eye?: The use of labels and language in science.

What am I?

What am I?

A short while ago I did a Skeptics in the Pub (SITP) talk about how as part of a university debating team I was forced to argue that creationism is a science. Don’t judge me, there was a trophy involved. The judges said so.  My SITP talk haphazardly covers if creationism is a science (it isn’t) and if it isn’t (it isn’t) could you go about arguing that it was to the bafflement and delight of the judges of a debate and an increasingly intolerant audience? (I did.) The talk was short and jolly and seemed to go OK.  If you don’t know, SITP is about getting people together in pubs to have a relaxed and enjoyable evening while listening to talks given in a friendly manner on a wide range of topics of sceptical interest. They’re good. You should go. As I understand is usual following the talk there was a short break and then we got to the question and answer section of the evening.

Goodness me.

I think it’s correct to say that the discussion was dominated by a philosophy human with some objections to the scientific nature of evolutionary theory. I say philosophy human because I don’t want to provide a name. I don’t think it would be right as I’m not attacking this individual, just describing the events leading up to the question that made me think. Being made to think is a good thing. I think. Also philosophy human is a good name. Although are all humans philosophy humans? Ah, see it’s working already.

I handled the questions as best I could, which I don’t think was all that well really given that I didn’t really understand what was being asked. Sadly when I asked for an explanation all I got was repetition which as you can imagine didn’t really help. Constantly repeating your point when asked for an explanation doesn’t really help you see. But never mind. I’ve been giving what I think the question was about some thought and thought it was worth vomiting some of this process into a blog post. Well obviously I did. You’re reading it. Sorry.

The main objection to the theory of evolution being scientific was that it can’t begin to explain anything as it doesn’t have any models. If you’re trying to explain the evolution of a fish eye, you first have to identify what a fish eye is. Fish eyes don’t have black lines around them.  It’s very difficult to get properly waterproof mascara that would look good on a fish for a start. If you say something is a fish eye, how do you know you are right? You don’t. There is no and can be no model for it, you can’t even identify what it is you are trying to explain, therefore the theory you are using to try to explain it is not scientific. This is all paraphrased by necessity.

By paraphrased I do not mean that the sentences are attached to parachutes. In this case they might as well be. I am not a qualified philosopher other than by the amount necessary to occasionally consider my own belly button. Thus any attempt I make to understand philosophy is going to be simple and feel to me like plummeting towards an unforgiving ground made of Hume without the ability to deploy a safety aid made of..um..Wittgenstein. Is the challenge to the scientific validity of evolution even philosophy? That’s for the philosophers to decide.

The “problem” posed by philosophy human seems to me to be a problem of the limitations of language. As humans we have to communicate using a language which is essentially a collection of labels originally useful for pointing out where good fruit is or where a beast is attacking from probably.  I can understand what you are saying if the labels you are using match the ones I use agreed upon by an  ironically unspoken consensus. The labels are not the thing itself but if you are an English speaker and I tell you about a badger, there’s a good chance you know what I mean.  In the very least can find out using said agreed upon labels.

So with the fish eye, we can look at the collection of parts within a collection of parts and label them as a fish eye within a fish. Objects which are sufficiently similar can also be named fish eyes and we can set about exploring how it is they developed over evolutionary time. We could just as easily label the fish eye as a “teacup banana” but as long as we all know what these labels refer to then we can study it as an object shaped by evolutionary pressures in a scientific manner.

When I say this about evolution I guess we can do this at the level of the gene, parts of the organism, the organism itself or the species the organism belongs to.  Using this language and the definitions it allows means we can access these incredible facts identified and the incredible explanations based on incredible evidence. And it is all incredible. Some of it you won’t believe your teacup bananas.

Evolution can lead to problems with labelling and the language behind it. Our labels for organisms, species etc can only exist because of the snapshot of time we exist in. If we had every badger that ever lived and every single intermediate organism going from each of those badgers back to the first thing that can legitimately be called alive then the idea of a species with a name becomes a bit difficult. Also we’ll have a serious pile of badger faeces to dispose of.  The parents of the badgers are similar enough to their children to be classed as the same species. The parent badgers  have the same deal with their badger parents and so on and so forth. However if we go back far enough then what we’ve got starts to look so different that we can’t label it as a badger. However at no point was a parent different enough from their children to be classified as a different species. So where do we draw the species line? Well in this scenario we can’t and to an extent the species label becomes meaningless.  My apologies to the taxonomists. Please don’t come at me with your swords and various lengths of knives. This said at this time we still have to use the labels we have so that everyone knows what evidence we are talking about.

It doesn’t make the theories less scientific that the language we have to use is at times imprecise although we of course should try to make our definitions as precise as possible. It doesn’t make the theory less scientific if we have to apply a label to something within that theory. Nobody would understand me if I invented my own definitions and words to apply to things based on my individual understanding of them without translation. Then if I did translate them what would have been the point in making up my own language in the first place? Quite.

I’m not saying it isn’t interesting to talk about the philosophy of what represents an example of something and how we can identify it. However we have to have definitions based on the limitations of our own language so we can usefully explain events using what we can currently classify with empirical evidence.  Is this empirical evidence some platonic ideal in a platonic universe? I don’t platonically know. We have to live in the world as we understand it empirically. I can question how I understand if what I’ve got is a fish eye or a pint of beer all I want. I’m still am not going to drink the fish eye. There are those that might argue it is not the purpose of philosophy to be useful in this real world example. Indeed.

Creative Creationists: Can you argue creationism is scientific without lying?

Someone arguing against science while driving a car. We won't ask what they use to fuel it.

Someone arguing against science while driving a car. We won’t ask what they use to fuel it.

Just to keep it topical, in September 2012 there had been some good news from South Korea. South Korea’s government had urged publishers to ignore requests to remove examples of evolution from secondary school textbooks. This followed a campaign by the Society for Textbook Revise (a creationist organisation), which argued that details about horse evolution and that cheekiest of potential bird ancestors, Archaeopteryx, should be removed from textbooks. Thankfully for science and for the young adults of South Korea, these fascinating evolutionary tales will remain part of their education. Creationists of course will not be so happy with this inclusion of evidence. Well they wouldn’t be would they? It would be like expecting badgers to be happy about reading evidence is being ignored in favour of culling. Although you could argue a badger should be happy that it can read at all.

Creationists, for the unaware, hold the religious belief that humans, badgers, life and the universe were created by a supernatural being, usually if not always a God. The creation of all this marvellous stuff (and wasps) is described as taking place between 5,000 and 10,000 years ago. In this vision, no meaningful evolution has happened. Creationists typically don’t like science. Probably only because the scientific consensus is that it is an evidence-based fact derived from multiple observations and experiments across multiple disciplines that the Earth has existed for at least 4.5 billion years with life existing for at least 3.5 billion years. In short science conclusively shows that a literalist interpretation of creationism is wrong.

Back in Bedrock I was on the university debating team. As a side-note I would like to point out that I don’t literally believe I lived in Bedrock or that the Flintstones was a historical documentary about humans living with dinosaurs. I may come to regret that sentence. Based on their past misquotations, I fully expect to see “the Flintstones was a historical documentary about humans living with dinosaurs” attributed to me in a creationist pamphlet. Or it would if I was even remotely quotable.

So the debating team. My debating partner and I had got to a national competition final. To my dismay it was announced that we had to argue that creationism was a science. After some thought I decided to take this as the challenge it was. Is it possible to successfully argue that there is legitimate science behind creationism without lying or bending the truth?

In this case it was not. I was and am aware of at least some of the evidence for evolution (vast) and the arguments for creationism (multiple but easily countered.) The arguments that I was aware of for creationism e.g. irreducible complexity, the improbability of life arising, the second law of thermodynamics and so on, have all been repeatedly deconstructed. There are no legitimate examples of irreducible complexity, the improbability of life arising has been banished because it had a long time to do so and you have to really misunderstand the second law of thermodynamics to think it’s an argument against evolution. I couldn’t think of new arguments in favour of a scientific creationism and still can’t.

Luckily and somewhat shamefully there doesn’t seem to be much of a rule in debating about the facts behind your evidence unless the opposing team comments. It is interesting to note that a lot of politicians have trained through this form of debating. You’re more than welcome to be concerned and sit down for a reassuring cup of hot beverage. So I couldn’t do it, but is it possible to argue creationism has scientific merit without lying. And does it matter?

Somewhat predictably it does matter. If the only way possible to spread creationist ideas as science is lying then some very influential people have to be held to account. It would seem that in the past creationists have been successful in convincing people their views are scientifically valid. Forty-six percent of Americans believe in the creationist view. Several schools promoting creationism have been allowed to be set up in the UK. There have been multiple campaigns by creationists to get evolution removed from science textbooks in USA schools. But the spread of creationist information as science rather than belief is the spread of information that is not factual. If someone had made me believe something that wasn’t true, influencing national policy and education by lying, I’d be pretty annoyed. And I’m not that easily annoyed. I can sit through at least 5 seconds of Britain’s Got Talent. Perhaps there is certain smugness in declaring evolution as true and creationism as false. There are even those who would say arguing against these creationist arguments is to present straw man arguments.

Unfortunately as we have seen there are a great many people believing and spreading untruths so maybe it is sometimes necessary to smugly punch a scarecrow to get to the real arguments.

It is not true that all creationists are actively lying about science. To accuse the majority of lying is not only wrong but unhelpful and liable to alienate them from real arguments favouring evolution. It is more likely that some people are unaware of evolutionary science but hear creationist views, believe them and pass on scientific distortions. We can look at this group in two ways; believers unaware of evidence against creationism and believers who are aware and won’t accept it. The latter group may be somewhat difficult to convince. Belief is usually not based on logic or evidence. That is somewhat the point we are told. But it is difficult to logically argue someone out of a position they didn’t arrive at through logic. It is fine for people to believe what they want to believe but we run into problems when beliefs clash with facts. I can believe that I can walk through walls all I want. I can take comfort from this belief. I still have to live in a house with doors. It is the former group that we can make aware of the evidence and through decent and understanding science communication, convince of the truth.

Attempts to display their own beliefs as proof can take creationists in peculiar directions. Some creationists it seems are on a campaign to “take dinosaurs back.” Creationist Ken Ham, president of Answers in Genesis, an organisation that established the Creation Museum, said, “Dinosaurs have been held hostage for decades.” Where they’ve been taken and how is beyond me. Even an enlarged pair of handcuffs would be useless on a Tyrannosaurus. Mr Ham is determined to appropriate dinosaurs for literalist creationists and as such has included them in his museum, often shown frolicking with humans. He obviously didn’t understand the subtext of Jurassic Park. But there’s a problem. It has been shown that many dinosaurs had feathers. Perhaps not surprisingly, the Creation Museum doesn’t and refuses to feature feathery dinosaurs in their literature and museum. Creationists want to utilise dinosaurs’ celebrity but refuse to accept many of them were feathered. Feathered dinosaurs are superb examples of evolution, and must have this interesting feature removed and fitted with a saddle for an imagined prehistoric jockey in order to comply with creationist stories. These misguided displays represent another attempt to disprove science that either has to be solely based on belief or active deceit.

Regardless of whether they are consciously lying some good has come out of debate with creationists. As pointed out by geneticist Shane McKee in his blog, some of the most persuasive evidence in our possession for evolution has been perfected for clear communication to the public by scientists attempting to tackle anti-scientific claims. Claims like those made in the presentation of dinosaurs in the Creation Museum. Most people are not scientists and cannot be expected to be aware of all of the latest evidence and competing viewpoints of evolutionary science. And of course we shouldn’t just believe scientists either. Good scientists should welcome questioning and an exploration of their evidence. Those who previously believed in creationism but have engaged with this abundance of scientific evidence and changed their minds should be applauded as should those who are willing to even consider the evidence. For while technically you can believe and argue creationism has scientific merit without lying, you cannot do so without being wrong.