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13 March 2018

Did Man Get Here by Evolution or by Creation?

In 1967, Jehovah's Witnesses publish a little blue volume asking Did Man Get Here by Evolution or by Creation? Half a century later, a copy shows up in the British Library, in a box of books left as part of the John Maynard Smith Archive.

John Maynard Smith (1920-2004) was a British evolutionary biologist and no supporter of Jehovah's Witnesses in any form. Rather, he had been an atheist ever since discovering the writings of population geneticist J.B.S. Haldane at the age of 15 – and a 'semi-conscious atheist before that'. Going into Eton's school library, he found Haldane's essay collection Possible Worlds and its 'mixture of extreme rational science, blasphemy and imagination, was a way of thinking that I had never encountered before'. It inspired Maynard Smith to read up on evolution and eventually – after a detour into aircraft engineering – to study it with Haldane and turn it into a successful career. So how did he come to own such a curious little book?

We have to go back to 1967 again. In October of that year, a Mrs Daphne Taylor of Sheffield packs up the book and posts it to Sussex University. 'Dear Professor,' she writes, 'Please find enclosed a small gift which I hope you will accept and enjoy reading.' Why send it to Maynard Smith? Has she sent it to any other evolutionary biologists? We don't know, but her motivation becomes quite clear as she goes on to say that she knows several people 'including teachers interested in evolution' who 'have found it most enlightening.' She wonders if Maynard Smith would let her know his views 'on any of the points brought out in the book'? There is, unfortunately, no record of any reply.

But is it telling that he kept both the book and, folded inside it, the accompanying letter? We do know that Maynard Smith had a continued interest in religion and creation(ism). The archives contain a short manuscript from his later years on "The Evolution of Religion" (co-authored with David Harper); in the 1960s he discussed science and religion on the radio and in 1986, following an invitation by the Oxford Union, debated the motion "That the Doctrine of Creation is more valid than the Theory of Evolution" (198 noes, 115 [or 150; the recording is unclear] ayes).

Proof for an intelligent designer? From "Did Man Get Here By Evolution Or By Creation?", p.71. Copyright © Watch Tower Bible & Tract Society of Pennsylvania.


What do the Jehovah's Witnesses ask and affirm in their volume? Evolutionary teaching saturates everything, even religion. But 'what do you personally know of the evidence for or against the belief in evolution? Does it really harmonize with the facts of science? We invite your careful examination of this matter, as it has a direct bearing on your life and your future.' The running argument is one that had been first used by William Paley in his 1802 book Natural Theology: or, Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity – nature is too complex for there not to have been an intelligent designer or creator. Paley famously used the analogy of a watchmaker: suppose you were to find a watch on the heath, and upon examining it and its complexity, would you not suppose there has to have been a watchmaker? Similarly, the Jehovah's Witnesses argue that 'what is made requires a maker'. Liking DNA to 'complex blueprints for future development', they wonder: 'And when we see blueprints responsible for the building of beautiful bridges, buildings and machines, do we ever contend they came into being without an intelligent designer?' What is more, there is not enough evidence for evolution (while all the existing evidence is compatible with the Bible), it's all just a theory based on conjecture and wishful thinking, unsupported by fact, and, really, not proper science at all.

The conclusion? The truly 'honest seekers after truth must acknowledge that the evidence is overwhelming that man got here, not as a result of evolution, but by means of creation by God.'

The question of evolution or creation is of course not new – Paley's watchmaker analogy may be familiar, but more will have heard (of) the story of the 1860 debate between Thomas Huxley ("Darwin's bulldog") and Bishop Samuel Wilberforce: are you descended from monkeys on your grandmother's or your grandfather's side? (The story itself has been highly sensationalised: contemporary accounts suggest that it was much less dramatic.) But organised creationism, in the sense in which it is most commonly understood today, is very much shaped by American Evangelical Christians and emerged in the 20th century. Stephen Jay Gould referred to it as a 'local, indigenous, American bizarrity' – but it has in fact not been confined to America. In Britain, especially recently, creationism has been discussed mostly in the context of education (free schools). Maynard Smith, while obviously not involved in those recent debates, discussed whether there is a conflict between science and religion in a serious of radio broadcasts aimed at school audiences in 1964. He concluded that there are cases and ways in which they do contradict each other but agreed with Christians in so far as to say that there seems to be something remarkable – but not necessarily unique! – about human intelligence in comparison to animals. He debated creationists, once together with Richard Dawkins – famously or infamously, one of the most outspoken critics of creationism and religion. Dawkins remembers that in the 1986 debate, Maynard Smith 'was, of course, easily able to destroy the creationist's case, and in his good-natured way he soon had the audience roaring with appreciative laughter at its expense.' Interviewed by the British Humanist Association – who are actively lobbying against creationist influences – in 2001, Maynard Smith finally summarised his views on religion as follows:

'I think there are two views you can have about religion. You can be tolerant of it and say, I don't believe in this but I don’t mind if other people do, or you can say, I not only don't believe in it but I think it is dangerous and damaging for other people to believe in it and they should be persuaded that they are mistaken. I fluctuate between the two. I am tolerant because religious institutions facilitate some very important work that would not get done otherwise, but then I look around and see what an incredible amount of damage religion is doing.'

So how did man get here? Obviously, Maynard Smith's answer would have been very resounding, "by evolution"!

John Maynard Smith c. 1965. Copyright © University of Sussex.


Posted by Helen Piel. Helen Piel is a PhD student at the University of Leeds and the British Library. She is part of the AHRC's Collaborative Doctoral Partnership scheme and working on the John Maynard Smith Archive, exploring the working life of a British evolutionary biologist in the post-war period.

This post forms part of a series on our Science and Untold Lives blogs highlighting some of the British Library’s science collections as part of British Science Week 2018.

Further reading:

The book and letter are now catalogued and can be found in the John Maynard Smith Archive (Add MS 86839 C)

Krasnodebski, M. (2014). Constructing creationists: French and British narratives and policies in the wake of the resurgence of anti-evolution movements. Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences 47, 35-44.

Numbers, R. (2013). Creationism. In M. Ruse (ed.). The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Darwin and Evolutionary Thought. Cambridge [etc.]: Cambridge University Press.

Pallen, M. (2009). The Rough Guide to Evolution. London: Rough Guides Ltd.

Watch Tower Bible & Tract Society of Pennsylvania (1967). Did Man Get Here by Evolution or by Creation? Watch Tower Bible & Tract Society of New York, Inc. & International Bible Students Association Brooklyn: New York.


19 December 2017

James Greathead and the tunnelling shield

Shield instagram
This GREATforImagination post commemorates the development of the tube tunnelling shield by the South African engineer James Henry Greathead. The patent, GB 1738/1874, is not online but you can see it if you visit the Library with a Reader Pass. Tunnelling shields allowed deep tunnels to be driven through soft earth, instead of being dug as trenches and then covered up. The shield protects workers cutting the earth at the tunnelling face. It slowly moves forward, with the tunnel being lined behind them to ensure that it doesn't collapse. They are the forerunners of the modern giant tunnelling machines used to dig the Channel Tunnel and the soon-to-open Elizabeth Line.

The first shield was invented by the British-based French engineer Marc Brunel, father of the more famous Isambard Kingdom Brunel, and patented as GB 4204/1818. In 1825-41, father and son used it to construct the Thames Tunnel from Wapping to Rotherhithe. First opened as a pedestrian tunnel, it is now part of the London Overground route from Highbury to New Cross.

Greathead's teacher, the engineer Peter Barlow, patented an improved shield in 1864 as GB 2207/1864. Barlow's key innovations were making the shield circular, increasing its strength, and lining the tunnel behind the shield with iron rings instead of Brunel's brickwork, which was stronger and faster. Although this version of the shield was patented in Barlow's name alone, Greathead is thought to have played an important role in the design. Greathead's patent of 1874 further improved the shield by using water or air to force debris back from the shield face into the tunnel, using hydraulic rams to force the shield forwards, and introducing the use of compressed air to further reduce the risk of collapse in very soft soil.

Greathead shield patent
Image from Greathead's patent GB 1738/1874



Greathead planned the construction using his shields of the first three deep-level tube lines in London - the City and South London Railway from Bank to Stockwell (now part of the Northern Line), the Waterloo and City Railway from Bank to Waterloo (now the Waterloo and City Line), and the Central London Railway from Bank to Shepherd's Bush (now part of the Central Line). However, his first main project in London was a now forgotten one - the Tower Subway beneath the Thames from Tower Hill to Tooley Street, which was originally opened in 1870 as a cable railway tunnel, but only lasted as such for less than six months before the operating company went bankrupt. It remained as a foot tunnel until 1898, when it was closed thanks to the opening of Tower Bridge. Since then it has carried water mains and, recently, telecommunications cables. At only six feet in diameter, it was not particularly popular as a foot tunnel.

Greathead died in 1896, before the Waterloo and City or Central London opened. Original Greathead shield parts can be seen in two places in London. One of the shields used to construct the Waterloo and City Railway was abandoned underground when the line was completed, and discovered during reconstruction of Bank station for the Docklands Light Railway in the 1990s. The outer ring was left in place and can be seen, painted red, at Bank in the deep-level passageway between the Waterloo and City Line platforms and the other tube lines and DLR. The outer rings of the shields used to construct the Rotherhithe road tunnel under the Thames were erected as archways before both entrances to the tunnels, from the Highway in Limehouse and Brunel Road in Southwark. A statue of Greathead stands in King William Street in London, near Bank where those three first tube lines all started from. The statue is not just for decoration - the plinth hides a ventilation shaft for the tube station.

Greathead statue
Greathead statue in King William Street



Further reading:
Croome, Desmond F and Jackson, Alan A. Rails through the clay. Harrow Weald: Capital Transport, 1993. Shelfmark YK.1994.b.4557
Maidl, Bernhard, and others. Mechanised shield tunnelling. Berlin: Wilhelm Ernst & Sohn, 2012. Shelfmark (B) 624.193
Stack, Barbara. Handbook of mining and tunnelling machinery. Chichester: Wiley, 1982. Shelfmark 82/04476
West, Graham. Innovation and the rise of the tunnelling industry. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005. Shelfmark m05/35230

Greathead statue photo by Dr. Jacqueline Banerjee, first published at Victorian Web.

30 November 2017

Digital preservation and the Anne McLaren Papers

Today on International Digital Preservation Day we present a guest-post by Claire Mosier, Museum Librarian and Historian at American Museum of Western Art: The Anschutz Collection, concerning the digital files in the Anne McLaren Supplementary Papers (Add MS 89202) which have just been made available to researchers. As an MA student Claire worked as an intern at the British Library in 2015 helping to process digital material.


AM30NovImage 1
Dame Anne McLaren. Copyright James Brabazon

The developmental biologist Dame Anne McLaren was a great proponent of scientists sharing their work with the general public, and gave many presentations to scientists as well as the general public. Some of the notes, drafts, and finished products of these presentations are on paper, and others are in digital formats. The digital files of the Anne McLaren Supplementary Papers are comprised mostly of PowerPoint presentations and images. Digital records are more of a challenge to access, and give readers access to, as they are not always readily readable in their native format. This leads to unique challenges in determining and making available the content. 

AM30NovImage 2
‘HongKong2003Ethics.ppt’ Page from the presentation ‘Ethical, Legal and Social Considerations of Stem Cell Research’, 2003, (Add MS 89202/12/16). Copyright the estate of Anne McLaren.

 Throughout her career, McLaren gave presentations not only for educating others about her own work, but also on the social and ethical issues of scientific research. Many of her PowerPoint files are from presentations between 2002 and 2006 and cover the ethical, legal, moral, and social implications around stem cell therapy. These topics are addressed in the 2003 presentation ‘Ethical, Legal, and Social Considerations of Stem Cell Research’ (Add MS 89202/12/16), which briefly covers the historic and current stem cell research and legislation affecting it in different countries. A presentation from 2006 ‘Ethics and Science
of Stem Cell Research’ (Add MS 89202/12/160) goes into more detail, breaking ethical concerns into categories of personal, research, and social ethics. As seen in these presentations and others, Anne McLaren tried to present material in a way that would make sense to her audience, some of the presentations being introductions to a concept for the more general public, and others being very detailed on a narrower subject for those in scientific professions. 

AM30NovImage 3
‘Pugwash 2006’ Page from the presentation ‘When is an Embryo not an Embryo’, 2006, (Add MS 89202/12/163). Copyright the estate of Anne McLaren.

 From looking at her PowerPoint documents it seems McLaren’s goals were to educate her audience on scientific ideas and encourage them to think critically, whether they were scientists themselves or not. However, this is hard to confirm, as the PowerPoints are only partial artefacts of her presentations, and what she said during those presentations is not captured in the collection. While she did sometimes present her own views in the slides, she presented other viewpoints as well. This is seen in the presentation for the 2006 Pugwash Conference (Add MS 89202/12/163) titled ‘When is an Embryo not an Embryo’ which presents semantic, legislative, and scientific definitions of the term embryo before a slide reveals McLaren’s own views, then goes back to legislative definitions before the slideshow ends. The Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs were created to ensure the peaceful application of scientific advances, and McLaren was a council member for many years.


Both the newly released Anne McLaren Supplementary Papers (Add MS 89202), along with the first tranche of McLaren’s papers (Add MS 83830-83981) are available to researchers via the British Library Explore Archives and Manuscripts Catalogue. Additionally one of Anne McLaren’s notebooks containing material from 1965 to 1968 (Add MS 83845) is on long-term display in the British Library’s Treasures Gallery.