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Vale – Colin Groves

We were very saddened to hear of the death of Prof Colin Groves, a stalwart of the Canberra Skeptics and life member of Australian Skeptics.

Colin (14 June 1942 – 30 November 2017) was Professor of Biological Anthropology at the Australian National University. He was one of the world’s leading anthropologists and taxonomists, who identified more than 50 species of animals during his career. As late as this November, he was involved in the publication of research which identified a new species of Orangutan in Sumatra.

He spent more than 40 years at the Australian National University where he was a respected and cherished member of staff, teacher, mentor and researcher who continued to publish papers well after retirement.

He was an active member of Australian Skeptics and had many published skeptical papers and letters (as recently as several this year). He was made a life member in 2013. He also conducted regular debates with creationists and anti-evolutionists, much to the chagrin of the creationists and anti-evolutionists.

He will be sadly missed.

Australian Skeptics Inc

Julie McCarron-Benson worked with Colin Groves extensively in the development of Canberra Skeptics. Both she and her daughter were his students. Here she recounts her memories of Canberra with Colin:

Colin Groves inveigled me to join him and William Grey in a fledgling Canberra Skeptics in 1988 or 1989. I had been fortunate to be able to take advantage of a free university education at a time when a majority of undergraduate students at ANU were part-time, mature-aged, and female. Colin had been my lecturer in several classes and I had done well enough for him to want to encourage my further study. Unfortunately, to his disappointment, I had too many other competing interests to focus.

We had such fun in the early days of Canberra Skeptics!

I best remember Colin’s on-going battle with Queensland’s Creation Science Foundation. They regularly came to Canberra and had public meetings. Colin had such joy about him, a real glint in the eye, as we prepared to go into battle at yet another presentation of the Creationists. Ken Ham, the recreator of the Christian tourist Noah’s Ark in Kentucky USA, detested him.

Colin was always polite at these presentations, but insistent, asking very gently and quietly questions which had the tendency to have the creationists tongue tied. Word would go around the organisers about his identity and Colin and usually me, with David Vernon or Drew Meek, would be escorted from the premises. The creationists weren’t always very Christian in their behaviour! The CSF finally called themselves Questions in Genesis and most took themselves off to the USA. A major Australian export product.

Each year, Colin would conduct a small informal survey of the new intake of aspiring archaeological and anthropological students at ANU. He would quiz them on their belief or otherwise about the beginnings of life and humanity. He was always disappointed in the high numbers who purported to believe in a young earth, 6000 to 10000 years old.

Over many years, the Canberra Skeptics, with Colin in our midst, picketed psychic fairs, handing out flyers exposing the charlatan stall holders. Colin would often be found trying out some of the free psychic offerings, such as Reiki. We put those flyers together and published a handbook for Skeptics with quick answers for when one found oneself having to argue common sense and critical thinking.

We regularly participated with stalls at ACT Alive, a shop front of ACT community organisations. We often found ourselves between the Anti-Abortionists or some other radical fundamental Christian organisation and some weird New Age belief group. The best time was when we found ourselves next to the Elvis Presley Appreciation Society and we only had to deal with Elvis impersonators!

Later we participated in the annual Science Week Fairs, and always had to fight off the organisers who thought they should include some of the pseudosciences for balance! I remember Colin’s acute disappointment with a small survey we conducted with visiting school children where something like 99% of them knew their ‘star sign’. More disappointing were the numbers of adults who would argue how accurate the predictions we had written up for each of the ’signs’ were. They were all the same prediction!

The highlight of our year was the annual dinner to celebrate the Earth’s creation on 23 or 26 October 4004 BC. We were quite enthusiastic celebrating the Earth’s birthday on 26 October 2006 when the earth turned 6000 years old! Colin’s major requirement was that there was ‘pudding’ at the dinners. He was quite boisterous in his love of his food. In late years, due to the dreadful condition he developed, he could barely eat.

Under Colin’s guidance, Canberra Skeptics organised three conventions. The second was the first public event at the very new Questacon. Most memorable was that we had to keep searching for and pulling the speakers out from the half-scaled, audio-enhanced, animated dinosaur display.

Colin had a wonderful gentleness about him. He attracted intellectual, thinking, caring people to him. He was kind to those who knew they had little knowledge but were seeking knowledge. He was very generous and prepared to share his knowledge and experience.

He was extremely lucky with his wife Phyl, who loved him, cared for him and carted him around various events when she must have been bored out of her mind. She was able to keep Colin well-grounded with her experience in her own fields outside academia.

Vale my friend.

Tim Mendham: