Kenya’s conflict over human origins

This story has been simmering for a while: Kenyan fundamentalists are trying to suppress the fossil evidence, so well represented in their country, of human evolution. On one side, we have Richard Leakey:

He told The Daily Telegraph (London): “The National Museums of Kenya should be extremely strong in presenting a very forceful case for the evolutionary theory of the origins of mankind. The collection it holds is one of Kenya’s very few global claims to fame and it must be forthright in defending its right to be at the forefront of this branch of science.”

On another side, we have fundagelical goobers:

“The Christian community here is very uncomfortable that Leakey and his group want their theories presented as fact,” said Bishop Bonifes Adoyo, head of the largest Pentecostal church in Kenya, the Christ is the Answer Ministries.

“Our doctrine is not that we evolved from apes, and we have grave concerns that the museum wants to enhance the prominence of something presented as fact which is just one theory,” the bishop said.

But you know what? There’s also a third side.

“We have a responsibility to present all our artifacts in the best way that we can so that everyone who sees them can gain a full understanding of their significance,” said Ali Chege, public relations manager for the National Museums of Kenya. “But things can get tricky when you have religious beliefs on one side, and intellectuals, scientists, or researchers on the other, saying the opposite.”

We’ve recently had a bit of a shouting match about “appeasement”, and this is exactly what we’ve been complaining about. This is not a tricky situation at all. There is no rational reason we should respect “religious beliefs” as equals to the evidence and ideas of “intellectuals, scientists, or researchers”. This false equivalence, supported by the people who claim to be defending science, lies precisely at the root of the problem. Museums should never have to defer to myths and superstition—so why is this even a controversy?

Larry Moran wonders why people accommodate religious foolishness, whether because of a sincere belief in religion, a more cynical belief that it is a useful palliative, or out of fear of antagonizing dangerous mad people. I wonder what Chege’s answer would be?


  1. says

    I don’t think the appeasement listed above is equivalent to what we in the Chamberlain school of thought believe. I doubt there is anyone within the Miller-Scott-Matzke et al position that would support the ridiculous arguments being made by the curator. If they do then they are wrong.

    As a paid up member of the appeaser club, I would meet any attempts to restrict access to fossils or teach evolutionary biology with as strong a resistance as I could muster. I imagine fellow appeasers would do the same. The fact that we believe that the Moran-Meyers-Dawkins approach is in some respects flawed does not make us equivalent to the idiot quoted above.

  2. says

    I’m going to Nairobi on Thursday, and I’ll be there until Monday. I intend to visit this museum and take in the exhibit while it is still there to be seen.

  3. says

    “But things can get tricky when you have religious beliefs on one side, and intellectuals, scientists, or researchers on the other, saying the opposite.”
    I guess it depends on the presentation, but that almost sounds like a punch line to a joke.

  4. says

    I don’t think public relations directors need any legitimate reasons to be mealy-mouthed … which is why it has nothing to do with the Godwin … opps … Chamberlain business.

  5. says

    Yeah, Steve is right, and this is the reason why Moran’s inability to recognize even large differences between positions makes him intellectually incapable of participating in this discussion: no one in the “appeasement” camp, least of all Scott Atran, has said that we should sacrifice science in the name of religion. Let me say that differently: no one has said that we should suppress any science because religion doesn’t like it. Nor should we allow anyone to misrepresent or misuse science to serve ideological purposes. If you can find an instance where anyone in the “appeasement” camp has said otherwise, please show it to me.

    Until the evangelical atheists get this, they’re going to look exactly like Christian fundamentalists, with their inability to deal with facts and actual arguments. I know Moran sure as hell looks like one. In fact, when someone tries to make it appear that science can replace religion, or that it somehow shows religion in general to be irrational or incorrect (Dawkins tries to do this, for example, by using science to provide a story about the evolutionary origin of religion, which is fine, but then argues or at least implies that this story somehow says something about the veracity of religious claims in general), they are misrepresenting and misusing science to serve ideological purposes, and as Chamberlain atheists, we’re compelled to call bullshit as loudly as we would if they were creationists trying to keep fossils from being displayed openly.

  6. says

    You guys aren’t addressing the question, you’re dodging it. Why should a person feel a need to accommodate religious claims at all? You keep shifting the problem: Larry Moran isn’t planning to sneak in and cudgel your grandma if she says a prayer at night. The Dawkins atheists aren’t even insisting that museum displays must actively support godlessness, or asking for a distortion of the evidence in any way. The problem is a culture that acts as if treating religion with kid gloves, to the point that a museum would consider modifying its presentation of scientific data to avoid conflict, is reasonable and normal. Why?

  7. says

    I’ll also add that what I see here is a few people making excuses for Ali Chege. Why? Again, I’m not threatening your grandma for saying prayers — I’m pointing right at a guy who’s being “mealy mouthed” over a clear religious threat to science. It’s as if you think religion is a legitimate justification for equivocation!

  8. Ian H Spedding FCD says

    The difference between appeasement and accommodation may be too subtle for some of our more zealous atheists to appreciate but part of it involves not getting drawn into a fight on grounds of your opponent’s choosing. This should not be confused with an unwillingness to fight under any circumstances which, of course, is what is being implied by the Chamberlainite appeaser slur.

    As for the unfortunate public relations manager of the National Museums of Kenya, his proper response should have been that science, like the law (and – if he was feeling mischievous – unlike religion) uses evidence to decide which of competing explanations of a phenomenon is more likely to be true and this is all that the Museum is presenting.

  9. Jud says

    PZ: “Why should a person feel a need to accommodate religious claims at all?”

    In the matter of a museum, or a public school, or a laboratory, or government funding for any of the above, a person should not feel the need to accommodate religious claims at all.

    Whether persons of scientific bent should feel the need to have any opinion about “grandma saying prayers” is another issue, closer to the one that was being discussed by Larry Moran, et al. I’m afraid you may have contributed to the confusion, PZ, by citing Larry in your post about the Chege matter.

  10. says


    I’m not dodging anything, I’m arguing that there is a clear distinction between the stance of the museum curator and my fellow Chamberlain-ites. Do you think the two positions are equivalent?

    Moving on, I have never suggested that Larry wants to sneak into old ladies bedrooms in the middle of the night. At least not to cudgel them! I think I understand your postion and disagree with it; I never went along with Ed’s stuff about you crusading for the apocalyptic distruction of Christianity.

    The ‘culture’ I belong to is one in which we recognise the overwhelmingly theistic nature of, in particular, US society and the common sense suggestion that overt/aggressive attacks on belief may not be tactically helpful when it comes to teaching evolution. Suggesting that this culture is one that inevitably leads to the kind of stance proposed by the curator is, IMO, an example of slippery slope thinking. I for one would step in to prevent this and I imagine virtually all appeasers would do the same.

    Anyway, as this thread will inevitably get a shit load of traffic I thought I’d bring the following petition to people’s attention:

    (I actually think there is a tactical mistake in the above, but nevermind)

  11. says

    Finally, I don’t know if this is addressed to me:

    “I’ll also add that what I see here is a few people making excuses for Ali Chege.”

    but I am not making excuses for Chege. He is wrong. Simple as that.

  12. says

    But, Jud, Larry wasn’t threatening anyone’s grandma in that post, either!

    SteveF, you’re endorsing Moran’s answer #3 with your reply. Why is it not ‘tactically helpful’? You are making an assumption that isn’t necessarily valid, that urging unbelievers to constantly back down and retreat will somehow lead to greater understanding, a reconciliation, and that believers will vote for science education while unaware of its consequences. Running away from the conflict does not resolve it.

  13. Michael Hopkins says

    None of the pro-science people of any note, to my knowledge at least, would support such museum display having anything other than an evolution. Finding some PR guy, who is a non-scientist from the third world, is hardly an impressive example especially when the PR guy represents an organization that has taken a clear pro-science stand. And indeed I would like to see the rest of what Ali Chege actually said.

    The position of your opponents in the current science blogs “civil war” on this is clear: science education should reflect science — period.

  14. Caledonian says

    So how will you deal with the people who believe that teaching evolution is inherently an attack on their religious beliefs?

    Why, the same way you’ve dealt with the problem for years: retreat and cede the conflict to the religious. What a grand strategy that’s turned out to be!

  15. Jud says

    PZ: “Jud, Larry wasn’t threatening anyone’s grandma in that post, either!”

    Oh, absolutely true. Didn’t mean to imply he was. What I gather the Moran, et al. thread was discussing was whether (1) folks keen to promote science ought to generally leave religion alone (except when it tries to horn in on, e.g., the way scientific knowledge is presented or research is funded); or (2) whether they should seek more actively to show that the scientific method/rationality is a more useful way of understanding all parts of the world, including morality, than religion.

    With regard to the Chege matter, I assume people who would choose either (1) or (2) above would agree that the Kenyan museum displays should not take account of religious viewpoints in telling the story of human origins.

  16. says

    The issue here seems to be the same issue that American science museums are confronting. Fear that an honest depiction of reality will result in negative consequences from the obvious loss of funding to the more dramatic crazy mob descending with fire and pitchforks to kill the heathens who put up the exhibits.

    If I remember correctly there were a number of science museums in the south in the past couple of years that refused to show Imax movies that alluded to either the big bang or evolution no matter how ancillary to the main story line either were. If they mentioned evolution or the big bang even in passing they were banned so as not to upset their “believing” constituents.

    This is a frightening trend, literally the hiding of reality to placate religious believers. And, this idea that the two beliefs are equivalent seems to be growing.

    My son goes to an online public charter school, and any lessons that deal with evolution, reproductive biology and the big bang, clearly state at the top of the lessons that they are “optional” based on the family’s belief, as about 50% of the students/families in the school are fundamental christians. Now you hear every day about the “achievement gap” for kids of color (my kid happens to be a kid of color and is at the top 99 percentile for the nation in both reading and math–its amazing what properly nutritioned, fully resourced kids can accomplish), yet you never hear about the “achievement gap” that must exist for this largely white population that is being allowed to deny scientific reality because it bumps up against their “beliefs.”

    On another note, as one of those “mealy-mouthed” PR people, there are those of us who are committed to engaging our considerable communications skills for the good. Don’t paint us all with the same brush :)

  17. Steve LaBonne says

    This is a frightening trend, literally the hiding of reality to placate religious believers. And, this idea that the two beliefs are equivalent seems to be growing. And the source of this problem has been clearly and accurately identified by PZ, Larry, Caledonian and many others.

  18. says

    I wasn’t aware that noting that someone is a public relations director is an “excuse.” The next tiime some creationist says something nasty about you, PZ, I’ll just tell him you’re a flack.

    Would that be an insult? Maybe then you’ll realize why we “appeasers” ain’t taking you very seriously here, since that is who you are comparing us to. Of course we feel no need to accomodate this particular religious demand. But a PR type doing what comes naturally and applying a little spittle to grease the skids is no accommodation either. That only comes from actually bowing to their desire to have these fossils hidden out back. High dudgeon will be appropriate when and if that happens.

    BTW, a much more serious complaint about the museum than mealy-mouthed PR directors is that it apparently will have bronze sculpture of the “Ascent of Man” outside the museum’s main gate when it reopens.

  19. G. Tingey says

    Excuse me, but the “religious leaders” and “Evangelists” in Kenya (as elsewhere) are simply lying. They may believe their own lies, but they are lying anyway.
    Noe SOME people ( “The Appeasers” ) are saying …
    “Let’s handle these people’s stated beliefs and protests about fossils/exibits with =great care, because they are religious leaders, and the delicate followers feeling might be huirt.”

    Well, bollocks – they are still lying in public.

    And the appeasers are straight wrong.
    Allowing a lie to pass, in a scientific subject is just not on.

    “All that is necessary for evil to triumph, is for good men to do nothing.”

  20. says

    On another note, as one of those “mealy-mouthed” PR people, there are those of us who are committed to engaging our considerable communications skills for the good. Don’t paint us all with the same brush :)

    As the perpetrator, I want to say that I don’t. Heck, I don’t even say Chege is that way. It’s a matter of what evidence there is for the amazingly broad brush PZ would like to use on those who don’t agree with his attitude toward those he does not agree with.

  21. louis says

    I’ve been playing with words recently, despite having had to partially absent myself from this vital aspect of the endless debate due to abnormal work pressures (i.e. my ATBC/Pharyngula/PT/T.O./email conributions have been low for a while). I’ll get to that playing in a minute.

    First, I STILL don’t get this Chamberlainist vs Evangelical Atheist nonsense, and STILL (as a fully paid up Evangelical Atheist by someone somewhere’s definition no doubt) see this as a clash of strawmen. Ok cliche warning alert, the next bit is right out of fortune cracker territory, but then since this is a cloud of straw I’m sifting through, I’m sure my erudite readers will forgive me! Of course one cannot make an omlette without breaking some eggs. Obvious. Recognition of this fact does not mean or imply that it’s all egg breaking all the time. Recognition of THIS fact (i.e. not egg breaking all the time) does not mean or imply that one rolls over when a theist barks and lets them rub your belly.

    Yet another cliche: you cannot please all the people all the time. Dawkins’ approach (Not Strawkins’ approach. Richard Strawkins is my name for the absurd, quote mined character that RD is oft made out to be. The guy is normally (not always) eminently reasonable, as anyone would know if they read anything he wrote beyond the quote mines, or read anything he wrote with anything approaching an open mind.) works for some and not others. Pretending that science and reason do not utterly destroy some aspects of some people’s faith and faith based claims ALL the time is ludicrous, and joyfully I’ve not seen anyone propose this. Sometimes we need to break eggs, sometimes it’s softly softly catchy monkey.

    This latest Kenyan nonsense is an egg breaker. As SteveF and PZ and evryone with an IQ over room temperature agree. Playing nice nice isn’t going to work, it’s rolled up newspaper across the snout and “BAD FUNDY!” time. Hit them with the newspaper of overwhelming evidence. Beat them very thoroughly with the Sunday edition of “how to have a rational argument and what “theory” means in science”. Needless to say we have other tools in our toolbox, not every problem is the same. And guess what, both the Evangelical Atheists say this the same as the Chamberlains. As far as I can tell evryone pretty much agrees about mostly everything. The silly strawman contest is doing nobody any good whatsoever.

    Back to my original comment about playing with words. Whenever I read/hear some religiously inspired diatribe about homosexuals or “immoral groups” I love to insert the relevant version of “black” or “female” in place of “homosexual” etc. It really starkly delineates the type and level of prejudice and bigotry being dealt with. This plays into the ONLY aspect of the current strawman contest that has any basis in reality at all (ahhhhh the point of this waffle looms!): i.e. how we as a society tend to deal with religious claims. Instead of religious labels/words (chistian, muslims, christianity etc) or non-religious labels/words (atheism, agnostics) insert a suitable political or academic token (I like the Dawkinsian use of positions in economics, it’s a good example). This really shows up just how amazingly hypocritical we are being (and I do mean WE, for WE all do this to some extent). Imagine if, in this Kenyan farrago, there was an economist (a Keynsian perhaps) who disagreed with the display of the material in question on economic grounds. Would the PR person feel compelled, no matter how politely, to treat this economist’s wholly erroneous and irrelevant views on the exhibition with anything but the contempt it deserves? No of course not, and on this both the Chamberlains and the Evangelical Atheists agree. In fact both are smart enough not to have to do the word swapping exercise at all, I mention it in this example as an illustration of the method (such as it is).

    Now do the same exercise for every religiously inspired claim, comment, attempt to inflitrate politics. Every time religion is mentioned outside of it’s own playpen swap religious words with ones from economics, or your personal irrelevant field of choice. It shows the flawed arguments up brilliantly.

    Why SHOULD this bishop’s claims even be considered (other than they might be popular)? Why SHOULD the language used by the museum’s mouthpiece be anything other than bluntly honest (I don’t mean rude or abusive, I mean polite but non-concilliatory)? Happily, as noted, no one is condoning the false equivocation being implied by the PR blokey. However, what energises me (and perhaps also PZ et al if I may speak for them) is that there is a noticable differential application of this “lack of condoning” across different, but equally irrelevant to the religious claims being made, fields and arenas. Religion, like it or not, is a series of social frameworks and ideas. Why these ideas are given any serious ear time over other ideas is beyond me (other than the sincerity/popularity issue). Insert your economical term where appropriate, economic groups are also social and ideological frameworks in an manner analogous to certain aspects of religions. Why aren’t we having a communist for every capitalist on the news, or a Keynesian for every Smithian? Or, as is analogous to the case whenever religious bozos* wank on about some facet of reality their tiny and feeble faith cannot stomach, why aren’t we having our Keynesian equivocally making his/her irrelevant complaints about cosmological discoveries? Why THIS unearned shoebox? Why THIS irrelevancy? The coin of religion it seems still has unearned value, sadly (to yet again mix metaphors horribly [and split infinitives]) it would appear that many people the religious emperor to have clothes on despite his obvious nudity, and only for the laudable reason that they don’t want to break too many eggs.


    *Not all religious people are bozos, nor are all bozos religious. It’s a testimony to the dumbness of this whole issue that I even have to point this out to people of reason.

  22. louis says


    As an aside this whole strawdebate is inspired by two things:

    1) A total lack of ability to appreciate one’s own flaws, 2) THEM (whoever THEM is).

    The THEM issue is based on that very irregular verb “To be right”. Which delcines thus in the present, indicative, active:

    I am right

    You are mistaken

    He/She/It is wrong

    We are virtuous, beyond reproach and totally correct

    You are possibly being misled by THEM, but with proper education and beatings could become as wonderful as WE are

    They are completely talking out of their arses, vile and in every possible sense of the word responsible for the downfall of everything everywhere, the bastards.

    I thank you.


  23. says

    What sort of threat does this moronic bishop have to grant him the power to make the Kenyan National Museums change their displays? Is he going to do like his ancient predecessor St Porphyry, and instigate a riot to burn the offending museums to the ground and murder any intellectuals in the name of Jesus Christ?

  24. GH says

    In fact, when someone tries to make it appear that science can replace religion, or that it somehow shows religion in general to be irrational or incorrect

    So science doesn’t show religious beliefs to be incorrect or at the very least implausible?

    How silly. Rational thought along with the scientific process is a key component to moving beyond religious dogma.

    Chris- perhaps you not Larry Moran should excuse yourself from the discussion.

  25. says

    I read (Science, a few months back) that selected objects from the collections were to be going on tour, similar to the Tutankamen tour some years ago, and for similar reasons (mainly to stir up lots of good publicity).

  26. says

    GH: Don’t be divisive. We all know that it’s entirely correct and rational for people to believe that they’re possessed by the ghost of a trillion-year-dead alien criminal.

    People who go around saying that this is just daft only end up making atheism look foolish.

  27. RickD says

    I bet Bishop Bonifes Adoyo doesn’t even have the decency to only move diagonally.

    Stanton: don’t give the bishop any ideas! Think on the history of Alexandria’s library.

  28. says

    That it was started by the flunkies of one of Alexander the Great’s generals in order to collect written knowledge from around the known world, and that it was burned to the ground because St Porphyry thought that God intended people to be rock-stupid, ignorant sheep?

  29. stogoe says

    I see Orac’s sicced the Hitler Zombie on us unabashed proclaimers for daring to renounce the timid as timid.

    To that I say ‘feh.’

  30. Torbjörn Larsson says

    the Godwin … opps … Chamberlain business.

    I see the strawman Godwhine meme has infected this thread too. Dawkins has a specific use of the term “Chamberlain”. It was unspecific use that led Godwin to his observation.

    So, why does appeasement fuel a controversy? The religious position doesn’t get the critique it could have. As a superstition. And as a troublemaker which at any time may take upon itself to start unnecessary conflicts with secular or religious activities.

  31. Torbjörn Larsson says

    the Godwin … opps … Chamberlain business.

    I see the strawman Godwhine meme has infected this thread too. Dawkins has a specific use of the term “Chamberlain”. It was unspecific use that led Godwin to his observation.

    So, why does appeasement fuel a controversy? The religious position doesn’t get the critique it could have. As a superstition. And as a troublemaker which at any time may take upon itself to start unnecessary conflicts with secular or religious activities.

  32. Kagehi says

    Hmm. To the appeasers and those that support, “not rocking the boat by pointing out the the “believers” are not just nude, but insist they are not”, theories. On a recent thread I mentioned talking to someone who couldn’t make the leap in logic between “different ways of knowing” and “some ways are just total BS”. Someone pointed this link out to me, well, the name really, not the link:

    The pro-appeasers should read it. Its the “logical” conclusion to the idea that, “People have different ways of knowing, and that should be respected.” The highlights include the throwing out of **western** sciences and their replacement with *sciences* based on “traditional” Vedic teachings, which include Vedic Astrology, Vedic Mathematics, the development of weapons for their military with “magical powers, like those in the ancient texts”, using cow urine to “cure” AIDS and of course, faith healing and priest craft. All now considered “legitimate” science, because some imbicils over in India have embraced the idiotic position that, “Religion is just another way of knowing things and their stance should be tolerated.” If the sands of time shift the right way, expect the Kenya fossils to either a) be destroyed as “devils work” or b) reworked as, “Studies of the methods and means by which Satan misleads the world.”, but **don’t** for one moment think that this can successfully coexist “in” Kenya with the real science, if enough people side, either by appeasement or belief, with the lunatics trying to make the museum rebury all the fossils in some dusty basement with the label, “Lies, because we say they are!”, on the boxes.

  33. says

    I see Orac’s sicced the Hitler Zombie on us unabashed proclaimers for daring to renounce the timid as timid.
    To that I say ‘feh.’

    To your “feh,” the Hitler Zombie replies, “Moooorrrreee brains!”

    Take off your hat. please. ;-)

  34. poke says

    My main problem with the “Neville Chamberlain Appeasers” is that you all seem to act as if your view of the philosophy of science is science. If “metaphysical naturalism” isn’t science neither is “methodological naturalism.” If you’re going to separate scientific and philosophical issues then you really need to stop following up on saying “Dawkins is taking an ideological position” with your own smug assertion that “science and religion are perfectly compatible” as if that’s not “ideological.” If you want to be at least consistent, say, “Dawkins is taking a philosophical position; an alternative philosophical position is that science has nothing to say about religion.” (Ken Miller, as I recall, actually does something like this, splitting his talks into the science stuff and the philosophy/theology stuff, although I’m not sure under which banner he chooses to attack Dawkins.) Until then you’re misrepresenting science on your own terms.

    (It’d also help if instead of talking about “religion” you used more accurate terminology that gives some idea of what it is you’re actually allowing here: “non-existent non-interacting elements of the supernatural (or elements of the supernatural that only interact under the cloak of quantum physics and chaos while being extra specially careful not to give themselves away)” might work.)

  35. says

    I have no problem with Dawkins, or anyone else, taking ideological positions. It’s hard to avoid doing that, and I’m not sure why anyone would want to. What I do mind is the way they tend to misuse and misrepresent science to do so.

  36. says

    Funny how some people say Dawkins misuses science. Is there some crystal clear definition of precisely what science is that allows you to include rejection of the supernatural as a non-scientific, ideological error?

  37. Caledonian says

    One striking similiarity between IDists and the supposedly pro-science who want to defer to religion is that both are willing to misrepresent the nature of scientific inquiry in order to further their goals.

    Oh, yeah, ends justifying the means. That’s another similiarity.

  38. brightmoon says

    well, i can see that this man was trying to not confront anyone but he did, unfortunately, give the impression that the irrational religious view was somehow equally valid …i have wimped out myself rather than hurt feelings of creationists by debunking their pseudoscience nonsense ……ive always ended up regretting my wimpiness (too much girls-have-to-be-nice BS from the 50s, i suppose)

    unfortunately sometimes you really do have to be cruel to be kind

    creationist pseudoscience will end up costing lives… ..or i should say more lives than it already does

  39. Brian X says

    I would have to say, in the grand scheme of things, I’m an appeaser myself. But I agree with PZ’s basic premise — religion is not part of the mission of a natural history museum, so there’s really no point in the director hedging his bets on the issue. He’s wimping out.