Vestiges from a time long past: Lyme Regis and three female paleontologists


My article on Mary Anning, Mary Buckland and Charlotte Murchison who lived exciting times in Paleontology in the 19th century got recently published on the Biologos website.

This was a great opportunity to deeply delve into their lives, their views, and discoveries, but also into the “Jurassic Coast”, the coastline from East Devon to Dorset, with rocks recording 185 million years of the Earth’s history. And in Dorset is Lyme Regis, the home town of Mary Anning.  In the early 19th century, Lyme Regis in Dorset was a very frequented seaside resort famous for its beauty where many of the upper classes spent their time during summer. The town had well-built houses which, though numerous, are still often incapable of containing all the people that visited it during the season. Lyme offered its visitors walks and drives, shops, assembly rooms, baths and cures for invalids. One of Lyme’s main attractions was the Cobb, a long harbor wall that stretches into the sea. The harbor, at times more important than the port of Liverpool, dates back to the 13th century.

Jane Austen visited the place in 1804, and in her last novel ‘Persuasion’, she describes the place as follows:

[A]s there is nothing to admire in the buildings themselves, the remarkable situation of the town, the principal street almost hurrying into the water, the walk to the Cobb, skirting round the pleasant little bay, which, in the season, is animated with bathing machines and company; the Cobb itself, its old wonders and new improvements, with the very beautiful line of cliffs stretching out to the east of the town, are what the stranger’s eye will seek; and a very strange stranger it must be, who does not see charms in the immediate environs of Lyme, to make him wish to know it better. The scenes in its neighbourhood, Charmouth, with its high grounds and extensive sweeps of country, and still more, its sweet, retired bay, backed by dark cliffs, where fragments of low rock among the sands, make it the happiest spot for watching the flow of the tide, for sitting in unwearied contemplation; the woody varieties of the cheerful village of Up Lyme; and, above all, Pinny, with its green chasms between romantic rocks, where the scattered forest trees and orchards of luxuriant growth, declare that many a generation must have passed away since the first partial falling of the cliff prepared the ground for such a state, where a scene so wonderful and so lovely is exhibited, as may more than equal any of the resembling scenes of the far-famed Isle of Wight: these places must be visited, and visited again, to make the worth of Lyme understood.

If you haven’t read the book, you should put in your reading list!

Another recommendation is this wonderful documentary “Walking through time – Britains Jurassic Coast” with Dr. Tori Herridge, a palaeontologist at the Natural History Museum in London:


Georges Lemaitre – der Physiker vor dem „Verborgenen Gott“


Georges Lemaitre war überzeugter Wissenschaftler und überzeugter Priester. Er sah keinen Konflikt zwischen Wissenschaft und Glaube, denn er trennte die Kategorie der „Physik“ klar von jener der „Metaphysik“. Durch die Beschreibung des Wirken Gottes als einem Gott, der sich verbirgt, zeigt er uns, dass die moderne Kosmologie weder Gottes Wirken belanglos macht, noch leistet er einer Haltung Vorschub, die Gott als ” einen weiteren innerweltlichen Akteur“ sehen will.

In den 1920er Jahren entwickelte Georges Lemaitre, der junge belgische Astronom mit Priesterkragen, seine Theorie zur Entstehung des Universums. Er postulierte ein “Uratom” ohne Zeit, Raum und Materie. Das Universum entstand im Bruchteil einer Sekunde und blähte sich demnach wie ein Luftballon immer weiter auf, während darin in einem kosmischen Feuerzauber Sterne und ganze Galaxien entstanden.

Während der Solvay Konferenz im Oktober 1927 traf Albert Einstein auf Georges Lemaitre, der ihm seine Hypothese präsentierte. Die neue Hypothese gefiel Einstein nicht, sie erinnerte ihn zu sehr an das „Dogma der Schöpfung“ wie er sagte. Er verwies Lemaitre aber auf eine Arbeit des inzwischen verstorbenen Russen Alexander Friedmann, der 1922 einen Artikel geschrieben hatte „Über die Krümmung des Raums“ (On the curvature of space). Die Überlegungen von Friedmann hatte Lemaitre selbst bereits angestellt und war noch weit über sie hinausgegangen.

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Arabic precursors of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution


Did you know that the theory of evolution did not only have precursors in our own scientific cultural environment, but also in the arabic world, dating back to the 9th century? – Now you know.

… the serious scientific discussions on evolution began at least a thousand years before Charles Darwin, mainly by Muslim scholars. Abu Uthman ‘Amr ibn Bahr, commonly known as Al-Jahiz, was the originator of the idea of evolution through his famous book entitled “Kitab al-Hayawan” (“The Book of the Animals”). Al-Jahiz was an Arab prose writer, the author of works on adab, philosophy, Mu’tazili theology, politico-religious polemics and scientific essays. He was born in Basra in 776 and learned various disciplines at different mosque circles.  Later he joined Mu’tazili circles and bourgeois saloons in Basra, Baghdad and Samarra, where conversations were animated by philosophical, theological and scientific problems.

In his “Kitab al-Hayawan”, Al-Jahiz introduced the concept of food chains and also proposed a scheme of animal evolution that entailed natural selection, environmental determinism and possibly the inheritance of acquired characteristics. In difference from modern evolutionary theory, for Al-Jahiz, the will of Allah served as the antecedent or originator for all mutation and transformations. As he suggested, inanimate elevates to plant level and animals are evolved from plants. Man, according to Al-Jahiz, was an evolutionary stage of animals. He also widely discussed the concepts of struggle for existence, adaptation and animal psychology, the concepts that make the pivot of Darwin’s theory of natural selection.

read more here: FROM AL-JAHIZ (776-868) TO CHARLES DARWIN (1809-1882) — HistoriaFactory

William Paley: “There must be chance in the midst of design”


Did William Paley really say this?

paley chance

On 25 May 1805 William Paley died. He is best known for his work “Natural Theology: or, Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity, Collected from the Appearances of Nature” in which he compared God to a watchmaker. When I found this quote shared on twitter and facebook by The Economist on occasion of the anniversary, I asked: “Did he really say this?” YES. But only as a premise to be contradicted.  So, in fact:   NO. He did see chance only as an appearance of chance, like the accidental coincidence of two designed events, or chance as the result of the ignorance of the observer. [1]

We should acknowledge that in his time, chance and randomness had not yet the same importance as in our times. He knew nothing about radioactivity or Brownian notion. He did not know about DNA and random mutations.

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Lima beans, parasitic wasps and Charles Darwin


When Lima beans are attacked by a caterpillar, they know how to defend themselves:

Plants have evolved a wide range of direct and indirect defensive strategies against being eaten by herbivores, like the indirect defense using semio-chemicals, i.e. chemicals that carry a message. The caterpillar of Spodoptera littoralis [1], the African cotton leafworm or Egyptian cotton leafworm, is a noctuid moth found widely in Africa and Mediterranean Europe. The cotton leafworm caterpillar is attacked by two parasitic wasps, one belonging to the Ichneumonidae, the other one to the Braconidae.[2]

We are amazed by the “smart” defense mechanism that plants have evolved during their evolutionary past.

But these parasitic wasps? If we remember correctly, Ichneumonidae are bad guys, at least this is their reputation.  Charles Darwin (who died on this day in 1882) wrote in a letter to his friend Asa Gray on 22 May 1860:

I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars.

Would Charles Darwin have judged differently had he known that plants have called the Ichmeumonidae to help them defend themselves? I don’t know. But I doubt it.

Charles Darwin’s concept of God was one of “God as Designer”, as portrayed by William Paley. This concept is outdated in a world where we think in ecosystems, and in interconnectedness.

In the 21th century, we need another perspective on God’s action in creation.  I propose the following text in Pope Francis encyclical “Laudato Si”:

Creating a world in need of development, God in some way sought to limit himself in such a way that many of the things we think of as evils, dangers or sources of suffering, are in reality part of the pains of childbirth which he uses to draw us into the act of cooperation with the Creator.(49) God is intimately present to each being, without impinging on the autonomy of his creature, and this gives rise to the rightful autonomy of earthly affairs (50). His divine presence, which ensures the subsistence and growth of each being, “continues the work of creation”.(51) The Spirit of God has filled the universe with possibilities and therefore, from the very heart of things, something new can always emerge: “Nature is nothing other than a certain kind of art, namely God’s art, impressed upon things, whereby those things are moved to a determinate end. It is as if a shipbuilder were able to give timbers the wherewithal to move themselves to take the form of a ship”(52). [3]


[1] Mithöfer A, Wanner G, Boland W. Effects of Feeding Spodoptera littoralis on Lima Bean Leaves. II. Continuous Mechanical Wounding Resembling Insect Feeding Is Sufficient to Elicit Herbivory-Related Volatile Emission. Plant Physiology. 2005;137(3):1160-1168. doi:10.1104/pp.104.054460.

[2] Morales, J, Medina, P, Vinuela, E. The influence of two endoparasitic wasps, Hyposoter didymator and Chelonus inanitus, on the growth and food consumption of their host larva Spodoptera littoralis. BioControl 2006; 52, 145-160. doi: 10.1007/s10526-006-9026-4

[3] Pope Francis, Laudato Si, 80; (49) : cf CCC 310; (50) Gaudium et Spes 36; (51) Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, I, q. 104, art. 1 ad 4; (52) Ibid., In octo libros Physicorum Aristotelis expositio, Lib. II, lectio 14


Schöpfung und Evolution, reloaded


[Am 3. März 2016 ist in mein Gastkommentar “Schöpfung und Evolution, reloaded” erschienen, als Antwort auf die Kolumne  „Intelligent Design, reloaded“ von Dr. Marcus Franz,, 18. Februar 2016. Dieser Beitrag soll  zeigen, dass es Zeit ist, das „Intelligent Design“- Modell  ad acta zu legen und uns Thomas von Aquin erneut zuzuwenden.]

2016-01-18 creationFinding Design in Nature – das war der Titel des Gastkommentars von Kardinal Christoph Schönborn im Juli 2005 in der New York Times. In der deutschen Übersetzung: „Den Plan in der Natur entdecken“. Das im Jahr 2007 erschienene Buch von Kardinal Schönborn heißt „Ziel oder Zufall?“ In allen Fällen geht es um um den griechischen Begriff des „telos“. Die Diskussion begann im englischen Sprachraum, und hier sind ideengeschichtliche Hintergründe zu berücksichtigen. Im Englischen verbindet man mit „telos“ zunächst „design“, „purpose“ (Zweck) und erst später denkt man an „finality“ (Zielgerichtetheit). Während wir in unserem Sprachraum den teleologischen Gottesbeweis mit dem 5. Weg des hl. Thomas von Aquin gleichsetzen, wird im Englischen das „teleological argument“ gleichgesetzt mit „argument from design“, und zumeist meint man damit das bekannte Bild vom göttlichen Uhrmacher, das der anglikanische Theologe William Paley, zwar von anderen übernommen, aber meisterhaft, ganz in der Tradition der englischen Natürlichen Theologie stehend, ausgebaut hatte: Lebewesen sind kompliziert gebaute Mechanismen, gut abgestimmt auf ihre Umwelt und ihre Funktion, und können einfach nur durch das Eingreifen Gottes erklärt werden. Charles Darwin war in seiner Jugend fasziniert von William Paley, doch kehrte er sich später immer deutlicher davon ab. Warum? Neben dem Schönen und Sinnhaften gibt es auch Baufehler, Krankheiten, Parasiten, es gibt eben auch “Natur, Zähne und Klauen blutigrot”. Und die passen gar nicht zum fehlerlosen Design dazu. Continue reading

Wolfhart Pannenberg (1928-2014)


03.02.1983 Friedenskongreß der CDU im Konrad-Adenauer-Haus, Bonn.

[written in September 2014] On September 4, 2014, Wolfhart Pannenberg, one of the leading German Protestant theologians, died in Munich.

Some refences to his book “Confessions of a Trinitarian Evolutionist” caught my attention. Here is one:

“God always used creatures to bring about other things. Think of the function of the earth in the first part of Genesis. The earth is addressed by God to assist in His act of creation. First, the earth is addressed to bring about vegetation. So we may wonder, ‘How can the earth, an inorganic reality, bring about an organic reality, vegetation, and then bring about the  self organization of organisms from inorganic materials?’ Yet, this is the Christian creation story. The second address of the earth is even bolder than that! God addresses the earth to bring about animals. And the text means higher animals. Such boldness does not really characterize even Darwin’s theory of evolution. Darwin wouldn’t have dreamed to have higher animals spring immediately from the earth, from inorganic matter. Darwin is much more moderate than that. In criticizing the doctrine of evolution, our creationist friends among Christian theologians should read their Bibles more closely.“

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