Video: Dawkins vs. McGrath

I reviewed Alister McGrath’s book, Dawkins’ God: Genes, Memes, and the Meaning of Life over a year ago and have been waiting ever since for Dawkins and McGrath to square of and hash out their disagreements.

John Loftus at, Debunking Christianity, has posted a link to the Google Video of their recent debate. I’m in the middle of watching it now, but, at just over an hour in length, I’m finding it to be a fascinating and the comments following the post are interesting.

Richard Dawkins Interviews Alister McGrath [Debunking Christianity]

Review- Dawkins’ God: Genes, Memes and the Meaning of Life [Hot Cup of Joe]

Science Blogging Anthology Now in Print

The Open Laboratory - order here
Open Laboratory: The Best Writing on Science Blogs 2006 has been published and is available for purchase and download at Lulu. For those of you that didn’t know, Bora Zivkovic, whose nom de blog is Coturnix at A Blog Around the Clock, put this anthology together and edited the submitted entries. I was proud to play a very small, bit part by being one of his fellow bloggers that voted on the entries. And the cover is beautiful! I suggested a couple of designs to Bora, but I must say that whoever designed this one did a far better job than anything I tried. I sure hope he/she got an “About the Cover” credit because it’s well-deserved. I’ll be buying my copy this week!

Zivkovic, Bora (2007). The Open Laboratory. The best writing on science blogs 2006. Chapel Hill, NC: Lulu. 336 pp.

Book Review: Dancing Skeletons, an ethnography

Dancing Skeletons: Life and Death in West Africa
Author: Katherine A. Dettwyler
Waveland Press, Long Grove, IL
Year: 1994

On average, about 17 children out of 1000 under the age of 7 dies in the world each year (El-Ghannam 2003) because of malnutrition, homicide, wars, drowning, car accidents, what have you -a sobering statistic for any loving parent. In West Africa, however, that number becomes 172 children out of 1000! For a parent, this figure isn’t just sobering, it’s staggering to consider and it’s the highest child mortality rate in the world.

In the West African nation of Mali alone, the risks to children include not only the same risks as the rest of the world: accidents, cancers, homicides, etc., but also malaria, schistosomiasis, HIV/AIDS, malnutrition, and other infections diseases and conditions unique to the tropical and largely rural regions of the world.

Malaria occurs most among the youngest children (Dicko et al 2005) and is responsible for over 33% of all fever sympotoms during the rainy season in Bamako, Mali. Also in Bamako, in 1998, nearly half of all children were infected with schstosomiasis (Clerq et al) and in rural Mali, the rate was as over half of the children between 7-14 years of age in some areas (Traore et al 1998). Schistosomiasis is a tropical parasite, abundant in Africa, and transmitted to humans after being hosted in larval form by freshwater snails (Morgan et al 2001). The parasite leaves the snail and enters a human host wading in the water by burrowing into the skin of feet and legs. Schistosomes affect about 200 million people worldwide and the eggs produced by the worms that grow in the blood vessels of the host are passed to the bladder and intestines and can cause blood in urine and stool (CDC 2004).

In her book, Dancing Skeletons: Life and Death in West Africa (1994), Katherine A. Dettwyler is faced with each of these health problems and more as she narrates her experiences in observing their cause and effect. Most of these experiences are from the perspective of an outside observer; some are of one who has an empathic interest in the people she considers friends; but at least one brings home a parent’s worst fear: the fear of losing a child.

As an ethnography, Dancing Skeletons was not what I expected. Dettwyler’s literary style was refreshing in light of other ethnographies I’ve had the pleasure or even misfortune to read. Her use of both humor and tragedy had the effect of motivating me to finish the book or certainly move on to the next page in order to discover what happened next. Occasionally, however, the expectation wasn’t fulfilled.

Especially engaging was Dettwyler’s use of dialog beginning on the very first page and continuing throughout the work. This had the effect of personalizing Dettwyler’s experiences and providing the reader with brief bubbles of real-time activity that placed the reader in Mali as a non-participant observer. Dettwyler’s narratives between dialogs gave necessary information for the reader to understand the contexts of the dialog sections and to get the data she was trying to pass on, but the dialogs themselves brought Dettwyler’s personal experiences to life with emotions of joy, amusement, tragedy, and frustration.

Dettwyler’s very first dialog section involved her evaluation of a severely malnourished child and it set the stage for what appeared to be a major theme of the book: that understanding cultural paradigms in Africa is essential when attempting to address its problems. This malnourished child and the mother’s inability to properly care for him posed the question: why is there a disparity in the diets and care of children versus adults. As a parent I found it easy to empathize with Dettwyler’s perspective in many of her contacts and interactions with children and her concerns for her own child, who accompanied her to Mali.

That Dettwyler chose to bring her daughter, Miranda, to Africa with her struck me initially as somewhat negligent, given the conditions Dettwyler described and the inherent risks that both would face with potential health problems alone. However, it was soon apparent that much of Dettwyler’s perspective depended upon her own parenthood and, perhaps, the proximity of Miranda as she conducted her research. And it was Miranda’s brush with death having contracted malaria (pp. 149-161) that punctuated the statement that Dettwyler was able to make with regard to both the tragedy and the joy that are simultaneously present in Western Africa.

The very title of the book refers to the children that Dettwyler watched dance in celebration for their village, which met the goals of a CARE project management team (pp. 141-142). The children were physical “skeletons” of malnourishment, dancing for the successes of their village in applying good health and hygiene practices, apparently oblivious to the problems they still faced with proper nutrition (pp. 143-144). This is where she drives home one of her themes by pointing out that it isn’t enough to simply address the medical and hygienic concerns of rural West Africa without actively working to resolve the problem of malnourishment among children. The latter endeavor could provide growing and developing children with the ability to avoid mortality from health problems like malaria and measles if their bodies were healthy and strong enough to fight the infections.

The tragedy and seriousness of nutrition and health in rural West Africa is made very clear in Dettwyler’s narrative and gives the reader insight into the true nature of the problems faced by the people there. Too often, statistics and headlines dominate Western knowledge of the plights of the developing world, but Dettwyler is able to objectify the problems and present them with a perspective that allows her readers to understand some of the associated cultural problems. For instance, Dettwyler offers an anecdote of a lunch she shares with a Malian coworker who criticizes her insistence that Miranda eat some chicken rather than less nutritious millet as the other Dogo children ate:

“In Dogo,” he explained, “people believe that good food is wasted on children. They don’t appreciate its good taste or the way it makes you feel. Also, they haven’t worked hard to produce the food. They have their whole lives to work for good food for themselves, when they get older. Old people deserve the best food, because they’re going to die soon.”

“Well, I applaud your respect and honor for the elderly, but health-wise, that’s completely wrong. How do you expect children to grow up to be functioning adults if they only get millet or rice to eat?” Of course, many children don’t grow up at all, on this diet. They die from malnutrition, or from diseases such as measles that wouldn’t kill a well-nourished child (pp. 94-95).

This argument largely appeared to fall on the deaf ears of her Malian hosts, but the reader is able to begin understanding a new perspective to the problem of malnutrition when this anecdote is compared with an earlier one in which Dettwyler tries to convince a Malian woman who has a child with kwashiorkor, a protein deficiency, to provide a appropriate food for her daughter to improve her health. The woman’s response is to ask for medicine in spite of Dettwyler’s insistence that food is the cure (p. 73).

Dettwyler rightly compares and contrasts Western nutritional expectations to that of developing West Africa, and notes that what is considered to be understood in Western cultures like America, that children need balanced meals, is something that we take for granted and something that needs to be taught in developing nations.

What I also found very appealing about Dancing Skeletons, was Dettwyler’s use of humor throughout the book. On several occasions, she noted that the Malians enjoyed laughter and Dettwyler’s ability to speak Bambara gave her opportunity to make jokes, sometimes at her own expense, in order to lighten the moment or just make others laugh. Each of her accounts of trips in the back of a bache, the pickup trucks that serve as public transportation, caused me to laugh aloud as she described the delight and surprise of the Malians that discovered her ability to speak the language, usually some time after they had been speaking about her (pp. 38-40). Dettwyler’s exchange of insults with a Malian colleague on their first meeting was another source of great amusement, and her observance of this cultural tradition, which included accusations of laziness and flatulent habits, gives the reader insight in her ability to seek that which is common to her and the people she came in contact with (p. 60).

Finally, I also noted that there were times in which Dettwyler described an event or situation in which I held an expectation that later in the book a connection would be made, as if part of a plot device in a novel. One such situation was the account Dettwyler gave of meeting the “noble hunter,” Bilo Bissan and the mystery that surrounded him (pp. 104-105). Her description of him as well his behavior gave me the distinct impression that the encounter would be significant at some later point. Not finding this later point, I initially felt a little let down –an expectation was unfulfilled. Perhaps it was simply that her characterization of him stirred my curiosity, but I realize that the expectation of more is probably an unfair one. Dancing Skeletons is, after all, a work of non-fiction and, as entertaining as it was and as pleasurable as it was to read, it was about real life –and death, and, therefore, did not have a plotline that could be fulfilled where all loose ends could be neatly tied at the end. As Dettwyler implies in her final paragraph of the book, Malian adults and their children continue to face life and death in a manner completely alien to me.


CDC (2004). Schistosomiasis Fact Sheet, Parasitic Disease Information. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention National Center for Infectious Diseases Division of Parasitic Diseases . Found at: [last accessed on 11/21/05].

Dettwyler, Katherine A. (1994). Dancing Skeletons: Life and Death in West Africa. Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press

Dicko, A.; Mantel, C.; Kouriba, B.; Issaka S.; Thera., M.A.; Doumbia, S.; Diallo, M.; Poudiougou, B.; Diakite, M.; Doumbo, O.K. (2005). Season, fever prevalence and pyrogenic threshold for malaria disease definition in an endemic area of Mali. Tropical Medicine & International Health, 10 ( 6), 550-556.

El-Ghannam, Ashraf Ragab. (2003). The Global Problems of Child Malnutrition and Mortality in Different World Regions. Journal of Health & Social Policy, 16 (4), 1-26

Traoré, M.; Maude, G.H.; Bradley, D.J. (1998). Schistosomiasis haematobia in Mali: prevalence rate in school-age children as index of endemicity in the community. Tropical Medicine & International Health, 3 (3).

[Book Review] The Science of Noah’s Flood (part 2 of 2)

The first part of this 2 part review can be found here. In this part, I conclude my review of Noah’s Flood: The New Scientific Discoveries About The Event That Changed History (Ryan and Pittman, 1998), and offer a list of references for those that seek further reading. This review is primarily about the book by Ryan and Pittman, but I review other literature on the topic as well. I hope someone finds the information useful or interesting and that it inspires others to read Noah’s Flood, a book that I found quite engaging and worth the read.


In further attempt to test the catastrophic infill hypothesis, Mark Siddell of the Southampton Oceanography Centre, UK, developed a computer model that would test breaches of the Bosporus sill at various modeled depths of the Black sea, from 50 to 150 m. Siddell, Pratt, Helfrich, and Giosan’s conclusions (2004) were that their model was consistent with the previously mysterious sharp left-turn of a submerged channel. The model’s turbidity currents also provided a probable explanation for the large, 2000 m deep sea floor hills. Even Aksu conceded (Schiermeier, 2004) that Siddell’s work was “solid oceanography.”

Another of Ryan and Pittman’s hypotheses is that the flood displaced one or more cultures, becoming the progenitor for stories of catastrophic floods such as the Gilgamesh epic and the account of global flood as told in the book of Genesis in the Bible (1998:165-201). Because writing appears to have first developed at around 3200 BCE (Postgate, 1994:52,66), it seems counterintuitive that an oral tradition could have sustained the integrity of the story for more than a few generations, much less for an excess of 2000 years. Stories become conflated with other stories and historical data is lost, biases of the storytellers emerge, and names and places change (Vansina, 1985:121). Indeed, even by following the names of the pious man whom the gods favor in the many flood motifs (Pritchard, 1955:42-44, 90-93, 104-106; Genesis 8:6-12), this can be demonstrated as he is called Ziusudra, Atrahasis, Utnapishtum, and Noah, among others. From Gilgamesh to Genesis, which are written accounts rather than oral ones, “seven days of rain” becomes “forty” and a dove, swallow, raven sequence becomes a raven, dove, dove sequence when the protagonist is releasing birds to find land.

In support of the displaced peoples hypothesis, the journal Science reported (Kerr, 2000) that Robert Ballard and Fredrik Hiebert found an underwater settlement at a depth of 91 m within the Black Sea that included “wattle and daub” building material, stone tools in the form of chisels or hammers, and pottery fragments. The find was only photographed, however, and artifacts for testing, such as wood for carbon dating, were not retrieved, drawing more criticism, albeit constructive, to the hypothesis (Kerr, 2000:2022).

However, the idea that the displaced peoples were farmers and took their farming skills with them to other lands may be the farthest reaching hypothesis. Ryan and Pittman suggest that a “Diaspora” occurred (1998:Ch. 17) with the catastrophic infill of the Black Sea, forcing migration from the Black Sea by the Linearbandkeramic (LBK) north of the Carpathians and the Alps and onward to eastern France (190-191); the Vinčas up the Danube and into the Hungarian Basin (191); and the Proto Indo-Europeans up the Dnieper and north of the Caspian Sea to the Urals (211-213). They suggest that each of these cultures took with them farming techniques obtained along the Black Sea. Mudi et al (Marine Geology, 2002) find that the pollen evidence of the region demonstrates that the area was wooded and that farming was not likely for the Black Sea basin at the time of the flood. They contend that the people of a “Diaspora” would not have had the skills needed to spread farming to Europe, Asia and the Near East.

That a catastrophic or sudden infill of the Black Sea occurred, changing it from a freshwater lake to a saltwater body seems clear. The physical evidence and computer modeling seems weighted in favor of this hypothesis. That this flood is the progenitor for the regional mythologies that include flood motifs seems less likely than the idea that cultures dependent upon a proximity to water for survival might develop many stories that involved flooding irrespective of the Black Sea deluge, which occurred over 2000 years and many generations prior to the earliest writing and would have been sustained by oral tradition alone. That the Black Sea’s flood sparked a “Diaspora” or mass evacuation of the region that resulted in the spread of farming seems too simplistic to be a single explanation, and far too difficult to test in order to accept as a viable explanation for a development in human prehistory so significant as the spread of agriculture. It ignores Binford’s argument (1968:312-341) that food production strategies arise from demographic selective pressures created by increased populations that begin to encroach on each other’s territories. Instead, Ryan and Pittman rely on Childe’s “oasis theory” (165-170), which Binford is somewhat critical of, to explain the rise of agriculture and use this theory to justify mass migration from the Black Sea following the deluge.

Dwight Coleman included in personal correspondence (2004) after conceding that the subject sparks much controversy, that a new book is pending that will summarize proceedings from several conferences on the geology and anthropology of the Black Sea. Even critics of Ryan and Pittman agree (Kerr, 2000; Aksu, 2002; Schiermeier, 2004) that the controversy and debate is healthy for the subject, drawing interest and money as well as innovations in good science. That book is about to be released and is titled, The Black Sea Flood Question: Changes in Coastline, Climate and Human Settlement, by Valentina Yanko-Hombach, Allan S. Gilbert, Nicolae Panin, and Pavel M. Dolukhanov. It can be pre-ordered from the Amazon link provided for a mere $259.00 USD. I think I’ll wait and borrow it via my Inter-Library Loan!


Aksu, E. A., Hiscott, R. N., Yasar, D., Isler, F. I., & Marsh, D. (2002, 15/10). Seismic stratigraphy of Late Quaternary deposits from the southwestern Black Sea shelf: Evidence for non-catastrophic variations in sea-level during the last ~10000 yr. Marine Geology, 190(1-2), 61-94.

Ballard, R., Coleman, D., Rosenberg, G. (2000). Further evidence of abrupt Holocene drowning of the Black Sea shelf. Marine Geology. 170, 253-261.

Binford, Lewis (1968). “Post-Pleistocene Adaptations.” New Perspectives in Archeology, L. Binford and S. Binford, editors, Aldine Publishing, pp. 312-341.

Burkhard, M. (1998, 24 April). Letters. Science, 280(5363), 499.

Coleman, D. ( (2004, 29/11). Email (Ancient Shoreline of the Black Sea).

Cognitive Science Laboratory (2005). Search Results for “sapropel” in WordNet 2.0, found in 2005 at:

Deuser, W. G. (1974). Evolution of anoxic conditions in Black Sea during Holocene. In: The Black Sea-geology, chemistry, and biology, E. T. Degens and R. A. Ross, editors, American Association of Petroleum Geologists Memoir Vol. 20, Tulsa, Oklahoma, U.S.A., pp. 133-136.

Jones, G. A. (1994). Radiocarbon chronology of Black Sea sediments. Deep-Sea Research, 42(3), 531-557.

Kerr, R. A. (1998, 20 Feb). Black Sea Deluge May Have Helped Spread Farming. Science, 279(5354), 1132.

Kerr, R. A. (2000, 22 Sep). A Victim of the Black Sea Flood Found. Science, 289(5487), 2021-2022.

Mudie, P. J., Rochon, A., & Aksu, A. E. (2002, 15/10). Pollen stratigraphy of Late Quaternary cores from Marmara Sea: Land-sea correlation and paleoclimatic history. Marine Geology, 190(1-2), 233-260.

Popescu, I., et al (2004). The Danube submarine canyon (Black Sea): morphology and sedimentary processes. Marine Geology. 206, 249-265.

Postgate, J. N. (1994). Early Mesopotamia: Society and Economy at the Dawn of History. London: Routledge.

Pritchard, J. B. (1955). Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Ryan, W. B. F., & Pittman, W. C. (1998, 24 April). Letters Response. Science, 280(5363), 499.

Ryan, W., Pittman, W. I., Major, C., Shimkus, K., Moskalenko, V., Jones, G., et al. (1997). An abrubt drowning of the Black Sea shelf. Marine Geology, 138, 119-126.

Ryan, W., & Pittman, W. (1998). Noah’s Flood: News Scientific Discoveries About the Event that Changed History. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Schiermeier, Q. (2004, 12 Aug). Noah’s Flood. Nature, 430, 718-719.

Siddall, M., Pratt, L. J., Helfrich, K., & Giosan, L. (2004). Testing the physical oceanographic implications of the suggested sudden Black Sea infill 8400 years ago. Paleoceanography, 19(PA), 1024.

Vansina, J. (1985). Oral Tradition as History. University of Wisconsin Press.

[Book Review] The Science of Noah’s Flood


In reviewing the book, Noah’s Flood: The New Scientific Discoveries About The Event That Changed History (Ryan and Pittman, 1998), it must be first noted that the text itself is pleasurable to read. The story of William Ryan and Walter Pittman’s in depth study of the Black Sea is one that gives wonderful insight into the process of developing hypotheses based on observed phenomena as well as the joys and tears of testing those hypotheses. Ryan and Pittman write of mystery, intrigue and even occasional suspense as their journey to discover the secrets of the geologic and anthropological history of the Black Sea, a journey that begins at the height of the Cold War and continues through the present day.

Their book prologues with a speculation of what it may have been like to witness the sudden joining of an ocean with a lake and the havoc wreaked by the volume of water; the sudden necessity to grab what one could and relocate self and family for survival; and the effect that witnessing such a violent and catastrophic act of nature may have had on a people for whom the land and water were under the control of gods or deities. Without question, this prologue is gripping and effective at gaining the interest of the reader.

Early Archaeology in the Near East
The earliest chapters of Noah’s Flood focus on the history of archaeology and geology in the Near East and include relevant anecdotes regarding discoveries of 19th century figures such as Henry Rawlinson and his work on the Behistun Rock in the Zagros Mountains (Ch. 1) and eventual decipherment of the cuneiform code, Austen Layard who excavated the Assyrian palaces (Ch. 3), and George Smith, who pieced together the Gilgamesh epic (Ch. 4). during his restorations of tablets recovered by Layard in Mesopotamia. Ryan and Pittman then leave the 19th century for the early 20th and describe Leonard Woolley’s excavation at Ur (Ch. 5) and the controversy and buzz he began “around the globe” by interpreting a 10-foot silt layer as evidence of biblical flood. This silt layer, of course, is not present at other tell sites near Ur. Ryan and Pittman tell us that it is regarded as a breach in the levee of the Euphrates and considered a “splay deposit” by modern hydrologists (p. 55).

Woolley’s misidentification notwithstanding, the common thread for each of these scientists, including Ryan and Pittman, is the hypothesis that Noah’s flood originated from a Jewish adaptation of the flood tale in Gilgamesh, which, in turn, has its origin in the Atrahatsis. Each of which are motifs of a man in favor with a god, being spared the deluge that consumes the remainder of humanity by escaping in boat (pp. 48-51). Woolley sought to confirm the historicity of the Bible (p. 55), while Ryan and Pittman set out to explain through science an event that may have had a profound effect on the human past.

The Core Hypotheses of Ryan and Pittman
William Ryan and Walter Pittman suggest several hypotheses relating to a change in sea level of the Black Sea during human prehistory. Their first contention is that the change in sea level occurred abruptly and rapidly at around 7150 years BP (Ryan and Pittman, 1998:149-150; Ryan and Pittman, 1997). Ryan and Pittman also suggest that this deluge was the progenitor for regional myths of great floods including those found in Gilgamesh as well as the book of Genesis in the Bible (1998:248-249). This contention would also imply the hypothesis that oral tradition can sustain a myth until such time that a written record could be established with the advent of the technology of writing, at least two thousand years later.

Finally, Ryan and Pittman suggest that the deluge may well be responsible for the spread of farming as a practice into Europe, Egypt and the Near East (1998: Ch. 17; Kerr, 1998). In support of this hypothesis, Ryan and Pittman have cited the sudden appearance of specific civilizations in the archaeological record and speculated that their habitation patterns were a result of cultural fears and norms as a result of their distrust for living in close proximity to major water sources such as rivers and oceans.

In support of the primary hypothesis that the deluge of the Black Sea occurred abruptly and rapidly, Ryan and Pittman cited several key pieces of evidence, most of which were obtained in exploratory expeditions to the Black Sea itself (Ryan and Pittman, 1998: Ch. 11-12; Jones, 1994). Even many opponents of their hypotheses appear to agree that the level of the Black Sea was significantly lower during the prehistory of humans who resided in the area (Deuser, 1974). Disagreement arises, however, in how fast the lake flooded to become an inland, saltwater sea. Some opponents even argue that it wasn’t necessarily fresh or significantly lower prior to 7000 years BP (Aksu et al, 2002).

Previous studies of the Black Sea sedimentology and modeling of the evolution of anoxic conditions indicated a slow progression of fill beginning 9000 years BP and ending at around 7000 years BP (Deuser, 1974). Core samples that Ryan and Pittman recovered during their expedition in the Glomar Challenger in the early 1990s contained mollusk shells at sampled from depths ranging from 123 m to 63 m (Ryan and Pittman, 1998:149; Ryan & Pittman, 1997; Jones, 1994:550). The radiocarbon dating of these samples became the main supporting evidence for the hypothesis that the Black Sea flooded suddenly rather than over a period of 2000 years. The dates of the samples were statistically the same, indicating that anoxic conditions arrived at each of the sampled depths at the same time, killing off the mollusks.

Robert Ballard and the Black Sea
In support of Ryan and Pittman’s hypothesis of a sudden filling of the Black Sea, Robert Ballard, Dwight Coleman, and G. Rosenberg (Ballard et al, 2000) discovered and documented an ancient shoreline near Sinop, Turkey at a depth of 155 m, which consisted of typical beach morphology of beach berm, a low-tide terrace, and longshore sandbar (255). Ballard et al concluded that the consistency of the shoreline as well as the lack of other shorelines in 100 m to 180 m survey range support the hypothesis that its drowning was sudden to the current shoreline. Ballard et al also sampled mollusks from depths between 140 m and 170 m, which were dated by 14C analysis (257-260). Several species each of both freshwater and saltwater mollusk were recovered, demonstrating a clear transition from a lacustrine to a marine environment. The youngest freshwater mollusk was dated to 7450 years BP and the oldest saltwater mollusk at 6820 years BP. Ballard et all concede that the gap of 640 years between mollusk types could be an artifact of sampling or may even indicate the length of time needed for a new species to immigrate (260).

Opposing Views
In opposition to Ballard, Coleman, and Rosenberg’s findings, however, Irena Popescu et al (2004) have examined the ancient shoreline of the Danube Canyon region on the opposite shore from Sinop and have concluded that the lowstand depth was 90 m and not 155 m (258). Their finding was based on the observance of both fluvial channels on the shelf that disappear below 90 m depth and a wave-cut terrace between 90 m and 98 m.

Dwight Coleman, in a personal correspondence (2004), responded that the possibility exists that the shoreline off the coast of Sinop is slightly older than the date of the flood and that the mollusks may have originated from “a shallower, younger shore.” Coleman also pointed out that an ancient shoreline appears to exist off the coast of Bulgaria at around 140 m with something evident at 90 m as well. He suggested that slumping and subsidence due to the Anatolian fault of northern Turkey could explain the discrepancy between shoreline depths.

Criticism was raised (Burkhard, 1998) that in order for the Black Sea to have been a freshwater lake, it must have had a significant outflow as with the Mediterranean Sea, otherwise evaporation would have created a salt lake. Ryan and Pittman responded to this criticism (1998, 24 April) that the existence of a freshwater lake prior to 7500 years BP is confirmed by faunal assemblages and salinity tests of seabed sediments. They also concluded that slight increases in salinity that would come from modest allowances for river discharge would be consistent with observed increases evident in carbonate mud and mollusk shells.

Ali E. Aksu is perhaps one of the more persistent and credible critics of Ryan and Pittman’s hypothesis of catastrophic infill of the Black Sea and has written or co-written no fewer than nine papers that call attention to problems with it. One of Aksu’s more convincing refutations (Aksu, et al, 2002) includes evidence of Black Sea outflow into the Marmara Sea, citing palynological data that supports an outflow hypothesis of the Black Sea across the Bosporus sill to the Marmara Sea. Aksu, et al, also points out the evidence of a delta formed in the Marmara Sea by outflow which contains the sapropel mud of the Black Sea. Sapropel is a “sludge (rich in organic matter) that accumulates at the bottom of lakes or oceans” (Cognitive Science Laboratory, 2005). This, they argue, proves that a connection existed between the two bodies of water for at least 10,000 years.

I’ll post Part II soon with references cited in both parts

Review- Dawkins’ God: Genes, Memes and the Meaning of Life

Quite by accident, I discovered Alister McGrath’s book, Dawkins’ God: Genes, Memes, and the Meaning of Life, as I was browsing the stacks of my university library for another title. Having read much of the work of Richard Dawkins, my curiosity overcame my general disdain for theological writings and I promptly added the text to the pile under my arm & checked them out with the librarian.

McGrath begins his critique of Dawkins with very favorable words, citing how he “devoured with interest and admiration” Dawkins’ earlier series of books, which McGrath characterizes as “brilliant and provocative.”

Dawkins’ brilliance, it would seem, is limited in McGrath’s view to matters concerning zoology and biology but somehow less luminous for matters that concern McGrath’s beliefs with regard to religion and God. Indeed, the work seems to become more of an apologetic attempt to defend Christianity’s honor from the big, bad atheist.

McGrath criticizes Dawkins as well as Robert Ingersoll for asserting that “Darwinism is necessarily atheistic.” In his criticism of Dawkins’ The Blind Watchmaker, McGrath goes so far as to deride Dawkins for failing to include the word “God” in the index! This, he posits, is due to the Darwinian world that “Dawkins inhabits and commands” and that Dawkins “eliminates God altogether” in his work that is subtitled, Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe Without Design. Many who have read the work have commented that Dawkins doesn’t so much “eliminate” God as he simply demonstrates that “design” is not necessary to explain the universe. McGrath is critical of Dawkins’ position that one must either accept Lamarckism, God, or Darwinism, but, since the first two fail as explanations, only Darwinism is left. But Dawkins, in the very quote that McGrath includes on the same page, states: “life in the universe is either Darwinian or something else not thought of.” Clearly, Dawkins isn’t saying that Darwinism is the only choice, but rather stating that Lamarckism and God do not offer viable explanations. To date, the Darwinian explanation along with its modern improvements provides us with the only viable explanation, though there may be “something else that is not yet thought of.”

McGrath further criticizes what he sees as Dawkins’ “absolute dichotomy between either Darwinism or God.” This assumption is reached by McGrath in spite of the statement “either Darwinian or something else not yet thought of.” Perhaps Dawkins does assert elsewhere that God doesn’t exist because Darwinism discredits him, though it isn’t apparent in the material cited by McGrath, who is critical, too, of Dawkins’ decision to choose an analogy that McGrath claims not to be “typical of the Christian tradition,” which is Rev. William Paley’s watchmaker analogy, popularized in his book Natural Theology. McGrath spends several pages exploring the history of this analogy, which are quite informative as we learn that Paley probably lifted his theory from naturalist John Ray of a slightly earlier time. However, Dawkins is right to criticize Paley’s work, regardless of McGrath’s opinion of its outdated nature, since it has been popularized by the pseudoscience of intelligent design (Dembski 2003). Admittedly, the Dembski article comes some years after The Blind Watchmaker, and others in Christianity may have “already rejected as inadequate” the watchmaker analogy, but it was and is still popular with certain influential fundamentalists of Christianity.

McGrath concludes at this point that “Dawkins’ atheism is inadequately grounded in the biological evidence,” yet he fails miserably in demonstrating this conclusion. Not one shred of actual biological evidence is discussed though it is thouroghly examined in The Blind Watchmaker as well as the earlier The Selfish Gene and, certainly, in The Ancestor’s Tale of Dawkins’ more recent work. McGrath seems content to say that the biological evidence Dawkins discusses cannot support his atheism, but he utterly fails to support the statement. Instead, McGrath is focused on the philosophical points that Dawkins involves himself with and refuses to digress on anything physical or tangible.

One of McGrath’s main criticisms of The Blind Watchmaker comes in his assertion that Dawkins’ Biomorph Programme is a “flawed” analogy that succeeds only in demonstrating the need for a creator to design the universe. Dawkins describes a computer program that was designed to take a target phrase and evaluate successive generations of 28 randomly ordered letters. It took the program only a few generations to get to the target phrase, “me thinks it is like a weasel.” The intervening generations were compared by the program to the target phrase and letters that were correct were correct and those that weren’t were allowed to mutate.

McGrath correctly points out that evolution hardly begins with a “target” of progression, but that wasn’t the point of the demonstration. McGrath also points out that the demonstration itself, including the computer and the program, were designed. True enough, but, again, this is irrelevant to the demonstration since the goal of the program was to demonstrate the process of cumulative selection as opposed to random selection.

Obviously it is that we need not “posit a God explanation” as implied by Dawkins’ work that really offends McGrath as it does many other Christian apologists. On page 58 of his book, McGrath poses the question, “[s]uppose we concede this point; what are its implications?” But McGrath doesn’t appear willing to answer the question. No exploration of existence without a god or creator is discussed. And, yet, he freely criticizes Dawkins for his alleged failure to take the “logical steps to conclude” the lack of necessity for a god. Other readers of Dawkins “brilliant and provocative” work would disagree and find that he very logically reaches the no-god conclusion. McGrath, however, simply goes on to enjoy a very informative discussion about Thomas Aquinas’ secondary causality argument.

Invoking the 13th century CE view of theology by Aquinas seems only to have the point of illustrating the “God did it” argument, which McGrath asserts is logical since whatever science might say about the world, God could have made it that way, either directly of through “secondary causality.” I find this a bit of a cop-out from McGrath; particularly since the argument is concluded with the statement “there is no way that Aquinas’ approach can be described as a post hoc attempt to defend Christianity in response to a perceived threat from the new science of evolutionary biology.” This is the same Aquinas that advocated heretics be “separated from the Church by excommunication, but also to be severed from the world by death ( Summa Theologiae 1265-1272 II:II 11:3). Mentioning Aquinas’ opinion of heretics isn’t simply a device of character assassination. Aquinas was obviously moved to defend his religious beliefs from new paradigms that were emerging. Contemporaries like Roger Bacon was advocating empiricism and opposed the immorality of the church, so Aquinas didn’t need evolutionary biology to prompt him to basically assert that no matter what the Bacons of the 13th century discover, it is all evidence of the glory of God.

McGrath’s inclusion of the “God did it” argument is almost juvenile, particularly with his conclusion that, since Aquinas pre-dates Darwin, it obviously must be a valid argument because he couldn’t have been attempting to refute Darwinism. Indeed, the inclusion of a self-validating argument that appeals to the wisdom of ancients like Aquinas presents precisely the failure he accuses Dawkins of: no logical progression. Where is the support for the claim that Dawkins fails to show a creator isn’t necessary? Is it in the words of a 13 th century CE theologian? Is it in the notion that no matter what science discovers about the universe, that’s the way God planned it?

Undeniably, a god or supreme deity cannot be excluded, but the sheer number of gods and deities that mankind has now and in the past makes pinning one or more down as the actual god of creation an impossible task, particularly since no god has ever been observed, nor is there any good evidence for one. A god can be assumed and speculated, but to suggest any specific deity is needed to explain the existence of the universe is intellectually dishonest. Particularly in the manner McGrath does, such as with capitalization of the “G,” which personalizes his deity with the very European notion of the anthropomorphic old, white guy formally known as Yahweh.

Citing Aquinas provides McGrath with no more credibility than if he cited the Flying Spaghetti Monster (and I challenge him to demonstrate that one has more evidentiary support than the other). Aquinas’ discussion of secondary causality is thought-provoking, but for the critical-thinker –the reasoned-thinker- the thoughts that are provoked in such discussions often include who caused the causer? Indeed, an infinite chain of “causers” becomes apparent, suggesting not one god, but an infinite number of gods that must be present in the universe. And, in a universe populated with an infinite number of gods, should we not expect to see more of them than stars, which are finite in number? What use would such a universe have with mere humans and other life forms? Particularly if each of the infinite number of gods were equally omniscient and omnipotent.

The logical conclusion that there is a god must also include that there are many gods, and that logic fails even for theologians. Dawkins’ assertion, therefore, is the true, logical choice: there simply is no necessity for a god in the universe. For a universe that is capable of creating a god, is certainly capable of creating itself without one.

Dawkins’ Engagement with Theology

McGrath refers to Dawkins “engagement with theology” as “superficial and inaccurate,” deriding Dawkins as often resorting to “cheap point scoring” on the subject of religious belief. McGrath quotes Keith Ward (1996) who characterizes Dawkins criticisms of religion as “systematic mockery and demonizing of competing views, which are always presented in the most naïve light” and McGrath criticizes Dawkins “tendency to misrepresent the views of his opponents” calling this “the least attractive aspect of his writings.” It would seem that McGrath finds that Dawkins’ characterization of faith to be the misrepresentation in question, though he fails at demonstrating how Dawkins is wrong. He says he’s wrong, but he doesn’t show why.

Faith as Blind Trust

“Faith means blind trust, in the absence of evidence, even in the teeth of evidence (Dawkins 1976: 198). McGrath asks, “why should anyone accept this ludicrous definition?” The first question the reader should ask in response is, “why is the definition ludicrous?” Perhaps it can be found in McGrath’s next query: “what is the evidence that anyone – let alone religious people – defines ‘faith’ in this absurd way?” For McGrath, this is, perhaps, one of the more offensive positions Dawkins has taken, and he criticizes in rapid-fire:

  • Dawkins offers no defense of this definition
  • The definition bears little relation to the religious sense of the word
  • No evidence is presented that this is of a religious opinion
  • No authority is cited
  • McGrath doesn’t accept the definition
  • McGrath has yet to meet a theologian that takes it seriously
  • The definition cannot be defended from any official declaration of faith from any Christian denomination
  • It is Dawkins own definition
  • It is a definition constructed with Dawkins own agenda in mind
  • The definition is represented as characteristic of those Dawkins wishes to criticize
  • Finally, McGrath is worried that Dawkins really believes faith equates to blind trust ( McGrath 2005: 85)

It is at this point that McGrath’s readers may be following with bated breath in anticipation of a definition of faith that defies Dawkins’ own. Instead, we get one, single definition from a 19 th century theologian that focuses on “the heart and emotions,” but fails to contradict Dawkins.

[Faith] affects the whole of man’s nature. It commences with the conviction of the mind base on adequate evidence; it continues in the confidence of the heart of emotions based on conviction, and it is crowned in the consent of the will, by means of which the conviction and confidence are expressed in conduct (McGrath 2005: 86).

Of course, evidence adequate for the mind is often not the same as evidence that can actually be quantified or qualified. An assertion easily supported by noting the number of tarot readers, psychics, homeopathic healers, faith healers, UFO buffs, believers in alien abduction, and so on, that exist in modern society. It would seem that these people all have “faith” in the claims that are presented to them. I wonder if McGrath would suggest that there is evidence for tarot or alien-abduction. Perhaps.

The Oxford English Dictionary (2nd edition 1989) provides the following definitions for faith:

Belief, trust, confidence.

1. a. Confidence, reliance, trust (in the ability, goodness, etc., of a person; in the efficacy or worth of a thing; or in the truth of a statement or doctrine).

b. Belief proceeding from reliance on testimony or authority.

What is revealing is McGrath’s failure to show the evidence that exists in even the most simple matters of faith that exist for Christians: there is trust that Jesus was God incarnate; there is reliance in the doctrine of original sin; there is belief that an afterlife awaits those in good-favor; belief in immaculate conception; belief in resurrection; belief that Jesus walked on water and drove demons out of people and into swine. But not one shred of evidence exists to support a single matter of faith with regard to any of these.

Which brings us back to the question that all rational readers of Dawkins’ God should have asked: why is the definition of faith as blind trust ludicrous ?

McGrath, through Dawkins’ God, succeeds only in revealing his extensive knowledge of the philosophies and theologies of antiquity as well as expressing his disdain for atheism and the audacity of atheists, particularly Dawkins, that dare formulate opinions about the universe that exclude his particular god. There is no surprise that McGrath and other Christians (or believers of any religion or superstition where “faith” is required) would refuse to accept Dawkins’ definition of faith, since it points out the elephant in the room: there simply isn’t a shred of evidence to support the core beliefs of Christianity outside of a doctrine largely written by Bronze Age authors. This alone supports and provides the authority for Dawkins’ characterization of faith.


Dawkins, Richard (1976). The Selfish Gene. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Dawkins, Richard (1986). The Blind Watchmaker. New York: Norton.

Dembski, William (2003). Intelligent Design, Entry to Lindsay Jones’s Encyclopedia of Religion, 2nd edition, found on the web at:

McGrath, Alister (2005). Dawkins’ God: Genes, Memes and the Meaning of Life. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.

Ward, Keith (1996). God, Chance and Necessity. Oxford: One-World.

NEW: Richard Dawkins Interviews Alister McGrath