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Mystery Photo

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Introducing Mystery Photos

Today Michael Shermer is introducing a new feature for fun and edification that he is calling the Mystery Photo. From his own personal archives of photographs taken on his various travels, we will post a “mystery” photo to test your visual memory and/or research skills. Each Wednesday in eSkeptic, we will post a mystery photograph. Post your guesses/answers in the comments section at the bottom of eSkeptic. We will reveal the answer to this week’s Mystery Photo in next week’s eSkeptic.

A Bestiary of Creatures

Author Christopher Dell has collected an astonishing array of art from around the world depicting many obscure and mysterious creatures in his new book Monsters: A Bestiary of Devils, Demons, Vampires, Werewolves, and Other Magical Creatures.

Christopher Dell joins the MonsterTalk crew to discuss why humans are so fascinated by these bizarre entities.

About this week’s feature article

On November 4, 2005, the first ever Evolution-Intelligent Design trial of the 21st century drew to a close in Federal court in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: Kitzmiller et al v. Dover Area School District. On December 20th, 2005, a judgement was made against the teaching of Intelligent Design. (We reported on that important decision in eSkeptic that day.) In this week’s eSkeptic, two days after the fifth anniversary of that judgment, Andrew Williams discusses some of the details from the trial as well as the current state of affairs in the ongoing creationism-evolution debate.

Andrew Zak Williams is a barrister based in England. He is also a columnist at and has articles published in the January 2011 editions of The Humanist and American Atheist.

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Panda image from the cover Of Pandas and People. The Dover school board promoted the ID textbook, which led to its decision to amend the science curriculum.

The Trial of the (New) Century
Dover and the 5th Anniversary of Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District

by Andrew Zak Williams

This year, 20th December marked the fifth anniversary of the judgment in the first major, no holds barred courtroom battle between Evolution and the new species of creationism known as Intelligent Design (ID). The question before the court was whether Intelligent Design was a credible scientific theory. If so, the school board of a small town in Pennsylvania would be able to argue that it had acted lawfully when it amended its science curriculum to include the reading to students of a description of ID, along with recommended readings promoting this new form of creationism. If ID was just a religious belief, however, discussing it in a science classroom would be a violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, which aims to provide separation of church and state.

ID’s “big tent” had already become a public relations triumph, attracting the support of bible-thumping Christians, a sprinkling of academics, and millions in between. In fact, during the weeks before the case came to court, President George W. Bush had stated his belief that students should be taught both sides of the controversy, and the Pope was reported to be reconsidering the Vatican’s acceptance of evolution. Meanwhile ID was being featured prominently in the likes of such venues as the New York Times, the American Spectator, and on late night TV debates.

The trial would be called Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District. And like a boxing promoter anticipating the big fight, leading ID proponent William Dembski wrote on his website in May 2005:

I therefore await the day when the hearings … involve subpoenas that compel evolutionists to be deposed and interrogated at length on their views … What I propose, then, is a strategy for interrogating the Darwinists to, as it were, squeeze the truth out of them.

The article, which is still available on the ID-supporting Uncommon Descent website, is accompanied by a picture of a Darwin doll with its head in a vise.

This kind of aggression from parts of the Christian community is explicable. For them, Kitzmiller was concerned with more than a science curriculum. It was a battle between worldviews: theism and godless materialism. As Daniel Dennett previously noted, “The theory of evolution diminishes the best reason anyone has ever suggested for believing in a divine creator.”

There could be no doubt: if the claim brought by Ms. Kitzmiller and her fellow disaffected parents were to fail, other school boards would soon follow Dover’s lead and introduce ID into their science classes nationwide.

Is ID Science?

Evolution refers to the idea that (1) species change through time and that (2) they are all descended from one or more common ancestors. It was Darwin who explained that (3) the engine that drives evolution is natural selection. At trial, the Dover board called biologist Michael Behe, a leading ID scientist, as its star witness. After all, it is his theory of Irreducible Complexity that underpins much of the ID movement. His evidence made clear that ID proponents don’t necessarily reject the first two prongs of evolution. But they deny the third one. According to IDers, natural selection is incapable of driving evolution on the scale required to account for the diversity of life on the planet. Cue the Intelligent Designer.

Leaving aside its religious implications, is ID even scientific? The plaintiffs’ expert witness, biologist and believer Kenneth Miller, said no. Science is the systematic attempt to “provide natural explanations for natural phenomena.” Crucially, ID cannot be science because it relies upon a supernatural being.

Behe and microbiologist Scott Minnich argued for a different definition of science that allows for the introduction of the supernatural. For them, ID is science “because it relies completely on the physical, observable, empirical facts about nature plus logical inferences.” According to Behe, the sub-cellular world appears to be designed, and so it is scientific to conclude that it must have been designed unless there is a compelling reason to believe otherwise. Unfortunately for him, Behe was forced to admit that his definition was so loose that it embraced even astrology.

But there was another reason why the school board was always going to be on the back foot when it came to proving that ID was science. It had been the fall-out from the Dover school board’s decision to promote the ID textbook, Of Pandas and People, which had led to its decision to amend the science curriculum.

The plaintiffs called philosopher Barbara Forrest to describe the history of the book under its various titles. The first two editions and the first draft of the third edition had explicitly taught creationism. But the second draft of the third edition eradicated the language of creationism and replaced it with ID-speak. What had happened between the two drafts to bring about this change? Forrest explained that the supervening event was the 1987 case Edwards v. Aguillard. In that case the Supreme Court held that teaching creation science violated the Establishment Clause because it involved teaching a religious belief rather than science. Although all subsequent editions used revised labels, such as replacing the word “creation” with “design,” at heart this was still a creationist text. Humorously, in the cut-and-paste process they failed to select the whole word before pasting in the new term “design proponent,” resulting in the hybrid “cdesign proponentists.”

Irreducible Complexity

What is Behe’s theory upon which the scientific credibility of ID rests? Behe claims that if you analyze the blood-clotting system, the immune system and the bacterial flagellum, you’ll see that they are “irreducibly complex”. To explain what this means, he says that if these had evolved by natural selection, there must have been many intermediate forms between their simple earliest states and their present highly complex ones. But Behe claimed that this couldn’t have happened through a step-wise gradual system such as natural selection because each of the intermediate forms would have been useless and thus eliminated by natural selection.

When Behe first published his theory it was not subjected to the process of peer review that scientific journals demand. Instead, he laid out his thoughts in the 1996 book Darwin’s Black Box, which sold largely to a religious audience desperate to embrace his conclusions. What’s more, rather than providing compelling evidence, Behe set out the reasons for his theory and left it to others to disprove it.

Even though it is exceptionally difficult to prove the evolutionary history of these types of biological systems, evolutionists rose to the challenge. In the case of the flagellum, evolutionary biologists have relied on a concept known as exaptation, or an ex-adaptation. This refers to the evolution of a system that evolved for one function but later evolved into a different use. In his courtroom testimony, Kenneth Miller explained that some bacteria possess a kind of syringe known as a Type III Secretory System (“TTSS”). The TTSS shares many protein parts with the flagellum but has fewer of them. And so the TTSS could have been naturally selected for its effectiveness at secreting things from inside to outside the cell before evolving into what eventually became a device for propulsion called the flagellum. Crucially, this demonstrated that if you remove some of the components of the flagellum, the result could be a working organic system, which is a fatal blow to the theory of irreducible complexity.

The blood-clotting system fared no better under the withering cross-examination by the plaintiffs’ attorneys. Behe’s book had based much of its blood-clotting discussion on work carried out by Richard Doolittle. It was therefore an especial blow to Behe that in 2003 Doolittle himself published a paper that demonstrated that pufferfish lack at least three of the 26 factors found in the blood-clotting system, but crucially they possess what is still a workable blood-clotting system. This put to the lie Behe’s claim that the system is irreducibly complex. What’s more, there’s no need to rely on the exaptation argument above.

As for the immune system, Behe stated, “The scientific literature has no detailed, testable answers to the question of how the immune system could have arisen by random mutation and natural selection.” In one of the few visually dramatic points of the trial, the plaintiffs’ lawyer piled a tower of over seventy articles and books on the witness stand that he confidently proclaimed provided that very explanation. Peering from behind the stack, Behe admitted that he hadn’t read it all but nonetheless insisted that it just wasn’t “good enough.”

20th December 2005 and Beyond

At 10.30 on a crisp morning on Tuesday, 20th December 2005, Judge John Jones III handed down his judgment: all 139 pages of it. He was a religious man who was appointed to the job by George W. Bush. Even so, his ruling was a damning indictment of ID.

Judge Jones explained that he couldn’t avoid “the inescapable conclusion that ID is an interesting theological argument, but that it is not science. … The overwhelming evidence at trial established that ID is a religious view, a mere re-labeling of creationism, and not a scientific theory.” Jones also noted that ID’s central argument of irreducible complexity was nothing new. After all, it employed the same flawed and illogical contrivances that doomed creation science in the 1980s. And ID’s failure to produce peer-reviewed publications was the final nail in the coffin of any scientific pretensions. In all, Jones concluded, it was “abundantly clear that the Board’s ID Policy violates the Establishment Clause,” as does teaching ID in science class generally.

The ruling has the force of law in only one of Pennsylvania’s three federal judicial districts. But Judge Jones’ decision serves as a warning to any school district thinking of instituting a policy similar to Dover. Only last November, 2010, Education Week reported that in several U.S. states school officials still feel emboldened by the ruling. The result has been a range of new curriculum materials, more teacher training, and pro-evolution activism by teachers.

The Dover ruling clearly polarized opinion. For some it was the latest step in a Darwinian conspiracy to eradicate religion, and with it moral certainty. But only a year before the trial, ID theorist and Discovery fellow Paul Nelson admitted:

Easily the biggest challenge facing the ID community is to develop a full-fledged theory of biological design. … Right now, we’ve got a bag of powerful intuitions and a handful of notions such as irreducible complexity and specified complexity, but as yet, no general theory of biological design.

And in 2006, Phillip Johnson, the figurehead of ID, gave an interview to Berkeley Science Review in which he conceded: “No [ID] product is ready for competition in the educational world.” In the light of these admissions, the kind of vitriol to which Judge Jones has been subjected is a stain on the fading honor of the ID movement.

Of course, the fact that ID isn’t science doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s wrong. Jones’ judgment was a little surprising in this respect. He justified his decision that ID isn’t science, in part, by referring to the fact that it had failed to be accepted by the scientific community and that it had been refuted by scientists. But curiously, he didn’t go one step further and rely on those facts to conclude that the theory wasn’t true. On the contrary, for legal reasons having to do with the restriction of the court to narrowly rule on the matter at hand, he expressly stated that the court was taking no position on that question.

Teach the Controversy

The Discovery Institute, ID’s flashing beacon, is clear in its stance: its theory exists and so it’s only fair for schoolchildren to be taught both sides of the argument. And if ID can’t be taught, children should at least be taught the controversy. The fact that ID is religious and unscientific doesn’t come into it: nor does the fact that in scientific terms there’s no controversy to teach.

The ID movement may have been born out of a desire to replace moral relativism with religious absolutes. But conversely, when it comes to education, it seeks to remove scientific absolutes and to replace them with a relativist approach in which proven science is taught alongside any theory which garners enough publicity to demand to be heard.

Frustratingly for the scientific community, most of the American public agrees with the “Teach the Controversy” slogan. With its implied appeal to fair play, it’s an inspired piece of marketing. But Judge Jones wasn’t impressed. To him, the motto “is at best disingenuous, and at worst a canard. The goal of the ID [movement] is not to encourage critical thought, but to foment a revolution which would supplant evolutionary theory with ID.”

In the realms of ID science, the movement marches on almost as though Kitzmiller didn’t happen, with the likes of Michael Behe, Stephen C. Meyer, William Dembski, and Steve Fuller penning recent books which have attracted media attention. And in 2008 an independent film entitled Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed was released, in which it was alleged that mainstream science suppresses academics who support ID. (Read Expelled Exposed on The film has been used in private screenings for legislators as part of the Discovery Institute’s campaign to introduce Academic Freedom bills into state legislatures. Discovery’s website even provides a boilerplate for those looking to draft this kind of legislation. In the main, the bills have been defeated, although Governor Bobby Jindal signed one into law in Louisiana in 2008.

Nevertheless, Kitzmiller came as a well-deserved boon to pro-evolution teachers and scientists. Five years on, however, it is clear that in the battle between different worldviews, there’s no truce in sight as creationism continues to evolve.

Skeptical perspectives on evolution
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cover Browse our evolution/creationism lectures
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The Greatest Show on Earth, by Richard Dawkins by Richard Dawkins; Greenhouse of the Dinosaurs, by Donald Prothero; H1N1: The Evolution of a Deadly Virus, by Carl Zimmer; Geology, Creationism & Evolution, by Dr. Donald Prothero; Why Darwin Matters, by Michael Shermer; Upright: The Evolutionary Key to Becoming Human, by Dr. Stanford; and more…

Petroglyphs in the slot canyon walls in Arrow Canyon, Nevada

Fossil Hunting Without Creationists

This past weekend, December 17–19, 2010, I joined paleontologists Donald Prothero from Occidental College and John Long from the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County on a fossil hunting, rock hopping, geology viewing, petroglyph scanning excursion through the Mojave Desert between Los Angeles and Las Vegas. Through the entire trip I kept thinking “I wish the creationists and Intelligent Design theorists would try their hand at some actual field work because then they would see (and hear and smell and especially touch) what nature is really like and what the history of life reveals in the rocks…




  1. Londiniensis says:

    Starting with an easy one! Statue of GIORDANO BRUNO (1548–1600) in the Campo de’ Fiori in Rome.

    • John Pattan says:

      That’s right. It’s Giordano Bruno’s statue. He was a great free thinker burned at the stake by the Holy Roman Catholic and Apostolic Church for the horrendous crime of thinking freely instead of thinking the thoughts that the Church demands its faithful to think faithfully all the time.

  2. David says:

    Dammit I knew that!

  3. Ron says:

    I thought it was Martin Luther after meeting Medusa?

  4. Ross says:

    Yup, i found the same. But both he and the erecting of the statue were apparently controversial events.

  5. Jim A says:

    Yup. Bruno in campo del fiore, Rome.

  6. Ron W says:

    Yes I too got that immediately of course. I have as one of my ‘things to do before I die’ to lay a wreath for him at this place. I suppose I’d be fined for littering by the authorities, but even that would be fitting, in a sense…

  7. Nick C says:

    I couldn’t remember the name, but he was the friar who believed in an infinite universe and was burned at the stake for it. I learned of him this past semester in astronomy class.

  8. Fran says:

    At first I thought it might be a statue of Girolamo Savonarola ready to toss another book on the fire. I’m happy that it was Giordano Bruno instead. Better a statue to a free thinker than a book burner. At least I got the nationality correct.

  9. Dave K says:

    I am sure it is Sister Mary Elizabeth, my third grade teacher.

  10. Pope Bobby II says:

    It would be “gneiss” to see some comments about the topic.
    I need to remind soi-disant modern “freethinkers” that the fact that evil politicians used the Christian (AKA “Catholic” sometime later) religion
    to persecute somehow does NOT imply that all modern Cathoics are stupid and/or evil,
    It seems that the leaders of the anti-evolution movement are usually anti-Catholic. ( Because of the endorsement by the RCC at present of a vague sort of Deism in the matter of Origins rather thn the whoopie-doo that goes with Biblical inerrancy.)
    Just a reminder that one of the jargon words of the KKK was “KANA” ( Katholics Are Not Americans )

    Pope Bobby II
    69th Clench of the Stark Fist of Removal
    Reformed Church of the Subgenius

  11. AT Coffey says:

    St Ignatius of Loyola

  12. Bob Eddy says:

    Michael Shermer…

    Was it Rasputin? This is fun.

    Bob Eddy
    East Norriton PA

  13. Jim Kutz says:

    That’s not QUITE the statue “at the Campo de’ Fiori in Rome.” There are differences.

    Compare Shermer’s “enhanced” pic with the one in Wikipedia:

    Shermer’s “enhanced” pic is wearing wire-rimmed amber eye shields. The lower body is covered by nearly transparent plastic, like a protective dust-covered coverall, throwing back a specular reflection that’s definitely not bronze as rge Wikipwedia article describes.

    I’m guessing the “enhanced” image was doctored to make Bruno look like a modern archaeologistin protective gear, holding up a find at a dig. “Enhanced” doesn’t necessarily mean true-to-life — that word struck me as iut-of-place for a merely ‘higher res’ photo that still hides most of the detail one would expect in a normal ‘point and shoot’ tourist photo of a bronze in that good a condition.

    The Wikipedia photo has fuller cheeks, a furrowed brow, a narrower nose-ridge, an apparent moustache, and lacks the pronounced down-turned frown of Shermer’s photo.

    The book is held a tad higher in Shermer’s photo

    Hence, while this could CONCEIVABLY be a different statue of a gaunter, sadder Bruno on which some prankster has put modern eyewear, it’s not the statue at Campo de’ Fiori.

    On top of that, 11 testimonials magically appear within a 7-hour period, INTERACTIVELY reinforcing the ID, yet none mentions the wire-wimmed amber eyewear — the implicit message being “look no farther, we’re skeptics and we’ve correctly ID’d the item by testimonials from some people with no last names.

    Kewep looking.

  14. Ned Lyttelton says:

    Jim Kutz: the two photos are just shot from different angles, which accounts for all the differences that you are seeing – even the “wire-rimmed amber eye shields”

  15. Carol says:

    My guess is one of the poets. Keats or Shelly. I’m probably wrong, but it is fun to guess.

  16. Walt says:

    That’s the picture I post in my classroom. Every unit I teach I have pictures and bios of influential/famous scientists related to the topic. For Astronomy, I have Bruno, Galileo, Jocelyn Bell, Karl Jansky, Carl Sagan, and Neil DeGrasse Tyson. My students are shocked to learn that the Church would kill someone who was clearly correct. I tell them “That’s the danger of dogma.”

    • Nathan Prophet says:

      Please, get your history correct before you poison malleable minds with inaccuracies. Bruno was killed because of his blasphemous statements about church doctrine, not about his scientific discoveries. It was still wrong by today’s standards, but get the facts straight please. Look it up.

      Don’t forget to add Brahe, Kepler, Cassini, Huygens, Newton, and Halley (plus many more) to your list.

      I am not defending the Roman Catholic church or any church or other like organization, but Galileo was convicted of heresy and placed under house arrest because he publicly espoused that the Sun, not the Earth, was the center of the universe. This violated accepted scripture; therefore, was heretical. Knowing the reality of the power of the Church at that time, Galileo should have chosen to publish his finding anonymously (as did Copernicus). Even though the Church was wrong in their actions, they were bound by their ignorance and fervent belief in the Bible as God’s literal word. Even today, there are limits to what we can say and do in public, and rightly so. We gladly make these concessions and go about our lives. Galileo should have done likewise. Most of all, he should not have dabbled in interpreting scripture at that point in history. If he and other wrote their thought anonymously or under a pseudonym, the truth would eventually get out and no one gets hurt.

  17. John Harrell says:

    It’s Giordano Bruno in Rome

  18. jim smith says:

    Picture is definitely of Jesus. I saw it once before on some syrup on a pancake.

    Enjoyed your session with Strossel and the Catholic priest last week. No contest! You could have won that one with half your brain frozen.

    (Strossel apparently doesn’t want to identify himself as the atheist that he defined.)

  19. J. A. O'rias says:

    I recognized since the very beginning, he was Giordano Bruno. It’s really sham tho times when Humanity had to think what was imposed by the Catholic Church & Pope’s think was infallible

    Dr. M. Shermer I like your blogs

  20. Ron says:

    Giordano also was condemned for teaching that life existed on other worlds.

    Didn’t the Pope recently set up some study group for that?

    Will Bruno soon get a pardon like what happened to Galileo?

  21. Pope Bobby II says:

    Seeing how the topic here is antique Christian dogmatism as a tool for political repression,,
    Who kmows how tho prove the Copernican theory in this day and age? ( Galileo didn’t know Newton’s Laws nor share much of his worldview)

    A Mormon guy I knew thought he was convincing of his peculiar ideas about American Prehistory by sayng “But Research Shows ,,”
    Is this really better than saying
    “Well Science believes it and therefore so should I !!!” ??

    Actually many fundies hold that “Scientific opinion ” is usually justification for DISbelief.

    The Popester

  22. chris harges says:

    Giordano Bruno. Statue in Campo dei Fiori, Rome. If these are all going to be Shermer’s heroes, this will be easy.

  23. Richard de Forest says:

    I thought at first it was the monk in charge of the St. Bernards, and feeding them… but no it’s my step father looking like the Calvin he was glued to, however absent of the irresistabilty of Grace, and certainly at least sternly watching the immolation of poor Bruno!

  24. MichaelNJ says:

    Giordano (Filippo) Bruno, statue in Campo dei Fiori, Rome.

    Took maybe 5 minutes with google images. Surprisingly after a couple of false starts, I tried: “statue monk hooded book”, and found it fairly quickly!

  25. bill says:

    Dang, I tought it was either tom delay or mitch mconnell

  26. Ricardo says:

    Yes, G. Bruno, if it is too short, well now it will be longer…as you need

  27. Kurt says:

    My first guess was Jan Hus, another heretic also burned at the
    stake. Which was wrong, it´s Giordano Bruno all right. That´s religion for you!

  28. Manuel Mota says:

    I see I am already too late, but of course it´s Giordano Bruno, at the Campo dei Fiori, Rome, where he was burned at the stake!

    Manuel Mota, biologist
    University of Evora

  29. Albert O. says:

    My first guess was Copernicus as he was vialed by the RCC for teaching that Earth was in fact the center of the universe.

  30. Nathan Prophet says:

    This is a statue of John Lennon after he returned from his religious quest in India. :-) Why do all you people just arbitrarily knock religion without knowing what in Hell you are talking about? I know you are all atheists and hate all religions, but at least get your shit together; get your facts straight. Yes, the statue is Giordano Bruno who was burned at the stake, but not for the reasons stated herein. He was burned as a heretic, not for any belief of the Copernican heliocentric model of the solar system, or for any other statement he made or theory he espoused concerning natural philosophy (science). The Inquisition was just one of many ignorant, vicious, and criminal practices (both secular and religion based) that occurred before and during that period of human evolution and culture. We have progressed. After all, in 1992 the Catholic church said “Sorry” for the Galileo affair. They will issue an apology for Bruno’s burning soon if they haven’t done it already. That’s religion for you – confessing the error of its ways and mending fences. Bruno should have kept his mouth shut about the Roman Catholic church and focused on his work, and he would not have been burned at the stake. Look what radical Islam does today; the blasphemy laws. What churches believe is their business. They aren’t forcing anyone to believe it. If you don’t believe it, just walk away and do you own thing, but shut up about the churches and what they hold to be sacred. There are lots of institutions with crazy ideas and beliefs.

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