Peter does some Evolution Outreach

On 25th January, Peter took part in a discussion forum on “Are evolution and creation compatible?” at Queen Ethelburga’s College, near York, with about 200 audience. On the panel were also Prof Roger Butlin, a speciation scientist from Sheffield, and two theologians from the York area. There wasn’t much opportunity to say much, as the whole discussion was less than an hour, and there were a lot of questions, and they were fielded to one or other of the panel by a chair. The whole evening was bracketed by some presentations about evolution by some sixth form students, who were very brave and professional, and a statement by the college chaplain, who stated that evolution and creation were entirely compatible. There was no opportunity to rebut this, and the statement just got left there as if it were true. It turned out that the chaplain had in fact conceived the evening, and so there was only really going to be one view put out there. I was never asked for my view on the main question. I was at times reduced to using exaggerated facial expressions to express my disagreement (amazement and also profound embarrassment) with much of what was said by some others on the panel.

Had I been asked for my view (I managed to imply this in answering some other questions) I would have said that the methods that require me to accept evolution (evidence based reasoning, particularly a high quality and variety of evidence) also require me not to accept creation. In this sense, they are incompatible for me. I think that evolution also raises many problems for monotheism: (1) the length of time it took for humans to evolve; (2) the fact that the creative process that gets us here is the death and suffering of the majority over 4 billion years, not to mention the other ten biollion years before there was even planet Earth (3) the apparent stochasticity of evolutionary trajectories (4) the problem of when you think souls emerged and how discriminatory that is against those who miss out on them (5) the fact the evolution shows how science can destroy an assumed religious origins story and replace it with natural explanation (6) the fact that evolution shows how morality can emerge through natural (internal) processes rather than needing an external (God) source (7) evolution can tell us why people can be fooled into believing in Gods in the first place. I expect that a tooled-up theologian could provide counter-arguments to these, but these issues will probably tend to draw a deep-thinking evolutionary biologist away from monotheism.

On 6th February, Peter gave a Darwin Day lecture to North Yorkshire Humanists, which was an altogether more satisfying affair, on “Why are there so many insect species?”. I tried to give a flavour of how the question is interpreted, the approaches used by scientists to answer it, as well as the weaknesses of the work we have to date, and what answers current studies are pointing to. There were some interesting and intelligent questions from the audience. These Humanists are a critical-thinking bunch. A video of the lecture is available at this link.


Ichneumonid diversity paper out

The supposed “anomolous latitudinal gradient in species richness” in ichneumonid wasps is a contentious subject. The issue was raised decades ago when high richness was recorded from a UK garden, and richness was not much higher in a small number of tropical samples. Since then, many researchers have assumed that temperate diversity of these wasps is at least as high as that of many tropical sites, and a lot of effort has been put into explaining why. However, the supposed trend may be spurious. Tropical richness is always undersampled (as are most temperate sites). In a new paper comparing the global set of samples of Pimpline Ichenumonids, as well as some new samples from Peruvian Amazonia, Gomez and co-authors have shown that Amazonia harbours the highest richness of all those sampled globally, but is still undersampled. My contribution to this work came from adding in the data from Sally Fraser’s PhD project around York. In addition, I spotted that once you control for sampling intensity (by numbers of individuals), latitude and species richness are negatively correlated. So, the most simple control for variation across studies removes the so-called anomalous richness gradient, in this group.