The Creationist Crusade (Full Text)
- In 1860, at the meetings of the British Association in Oxford, Thomas Henry Huxley, "Darwin's bulldog," vanquished Bishop Wilberforce in a famous debate. Charles Darwin had published The Origin of Species the year before. His book contained very little about human evolution1; Darwin had stepped cautiously around the issue. Still, Wilberforce saw the implications of Darwin's views. A skilled debater, whose slippery performances had earned him the nickname of "Soapy Sam," he thought he saw a way to achieve rhetorical effect. In an unwise moment, toward the end of his address, he turned to Huxley, who was sitting beside him on the platform. With the air of a man about to deliver the fatal blow, he asked whether Huxley's descent from the apes came through his grandfather or his grandmother. Popular history reports that Huxley muttered under his breath, "The Lord has delivered him into my hands." He went on to deliver a scathing response, openly admitting that he would prefer an ape for a grandparent to a man, blessed with intellect and education, who used rhetorical tricks to confuse an important scientific issue.
- Over 120 years later, the conclusions and debating methods of Soapy Sam are alive and well and playing in Peoria. In recent years, a political alliance has been forged between the self-appointed champions of virtue and religion — the Moral Majority — and a group of believers in the literal truth of the Bible. These extreme fundamentalists, who call themselves Scientific Creationists, have founded the Institute for Creation Research. Many of them had obtained doctorates in various scientific fields, but their energies are now channelled into promoting the Creationist cause. They have written and distributed a large mass of literature, arguing that evolutionary2 theory suffers from crucial deficiencies and that Creation Science, a doctrine compatible with the literal truth of Genesis, is far better supported by the evidence. The titles of their books convey the message:
… The Natural Sciences Know Nothing of Evolution3;
… Creation: A Scientist's Choice;
… That You Might Believe, The Bible Has the Answer;
… Scientific Creationism;
… The Troubled Waters of Evolution4;
… Evolution? The Fossils Say No! ;
… Evolution: Its Collapse in View?
… The Great Brain Robbery;
and many more in the same vein.
- The goals of the alliance are formidable. The Moral Majority and the Institute for Creation Research would like to "reform" the teaching of high school science. Creationists have already achieved some dramatic successes. In seventeen states legislators have introduced bills that would require the teaching of Creation "science." Two states, Arkansas and Louisiana, have passed "balanced-treatment" laws. These legislative victories are among the most prominent achievements of the Moral Majority. They encourage the faithful to believe that the cause is being advanced.
- The alliance between the Moral Majority and the "scientific" Creationists serves both allies well. Jerry Falwell's Old Time Gospel Hour offers a forum for broadcasting Creationist ideas. On the other hand, Falwell needs concrete issues around which to build his movement. Those who are drawn in are exhorted to carry the cause into their local schools. Tactical advice is readily available. Readers of the Creationist newsletter are encouraged to make lists of teachers who promote evolutionary5 theory or argue against Creationism. And, for a small fee, the Institute for Creation Research will send out a pamphlet, written by its director, Henry Morris. In "Introducing Creationism in the Public Schools," Morris tells parents and students how they can help. He suggests that concerned parents might "establish a formal community organization, with some appropriate name (Citizens for Scientific Creationism, Parents Concerned for Educational Integrity, Civil Rights for Creationists, Committee for the Improvement of Education, etc.)"; or they could poll the views of their community; students who believe in Creationism are encouraged to raise questions in class - but they are urged to be respectful and courteous, "winsome and tactful, kind and patient"; Morris also adds that "cleanliness and neatness don't hurt either" (Morris 1975, 7-8). So the foot soldiers of the cause, well-heeled and well-scrubbed, are set in motion.
- It is easy to overlook these smaller skirmishes. For most people, the image of the battle between Creationism and evolution6 is that presented in a deservedly famous movie, Inherit the Wind. The image proves comforting. All will be well, for a latter-day Clarence Darrow — or, better, a latter-day Spencer Tracy, playing Clarence Darrow — will come forth to achieve a moral victory for science. But the popular image of the Scopes trial as a defeat for fundamentalism is inaccurate. Though Spencer Tracy won the hearts of moviegoers, Darrow failed to win the day for evolution7. Scopes was convicted. (Rightly so. He had broken a Tennessee law forbidding the teaching of evolution8.) His conviction was overturned on a technicality. As a result, the case did not go forward to appeal, and it was therefore impossible to challenge the constitutionality of the law. (Antievolution9 laws survived in Arkansas, Mississippi, and Tennessee until the 1960s.) For all Darrow's clever questions, the champions of science did not gain their point.
- Indeed, the legacy of the Scopes trial reveals the extent of the defeat. Biology textbooks were changed to soft-pedal the teaching of evolution10. For about thirty years, until the launching of Sputnik led many people to think that science education should be taken seriously, publishers and educators were persuaded to follow the educational policy that some fundamentalists had tried to require by law. The moral of history is echoed in recent events. On the day that Judge William Overton, in a lucid and informed ruling, struck down Arkansas law 590 (the Arkansas balanced-treatment law), the Mississippi senate voted, 48-4, to introduce its own balanced-treatment law.
- Even if Creationists continue to lose in the courts, they may still succeed in wreaking havoc upon science education (and, ultimately, upon American science). By lobbying local school administrators, the Creationist minions can affect the books that are chosen and the curriculum that is designed. Because textbooks are published to make a profit, the special-interest pressure will change the character of the books that are produced. While Creationist laws fail, the cause may triumph, as science education relapses into its post-Scopes, pre-Sputnik condition.
- When the Arkansas Creationist law was challenged, a team of scientific, philosophical, and theological luminaries assembled in Little Rock. Judge Overton drew on expert testimony. Teachers, administrators, and local school-board members are likely to be less lucky. The advocates of Creationism may be winsome, tactful, and sweetly reasonable, but they are bent on having their way and they are equipped with the ideas and arguments of the Institute for Creation Research. Ready with the rhetorical tricks of Creationist literature, a carefully primed student or a concerned parent can easily embarrass a teacher or a PTA member. Not every school district has its Huxley, prepared to respond to the clever questions of the local Wilberforce.
- Although it attempts to do more, this book is intended to be a manual for intellectual self-defense, something that can be consulted when the smiling advocates of Creationism launch their attack. I hope that it will help anyone who wants to arrive at an informed opinion on the issue. It is written for concerned citizens, whether their background in science is minimal or they are professional scientists. I have tried to explain what the Creationists say and why they are wrong — in such a way that anyone who is interested may find out.
- The chapters that follow attempt to disentangle and address the major arguments that "scientific" Creationists have given. Creationist strategy is often to run entirely different issues together, to concoct a muddy paste out of distinct allegations about the evils of evolution11 and the glories of Creationism. Falwell's printed letter, soliciting (tax-deductible) contributions from all those who request information about the Moral Majority's position on the issue, is a masterpiece of the art. In one and a half pages, Falwell charges that belief in evolution12 requires more faith than belief in special creation, that "academic freedom" requires teaching both sides of the story, that the teaching of evolution13 fosters the attitude that we may as well "eat, drink, and be merry." The questions Falwell raises need to be treated separately: What are the respective scientific credentials of evolutionary14 theory and Creation "science"? What does a genuine intellectual tolerance require of us? What consequences does evolutionary15 theory have for our moral views and our moral practices? The book that follows is a chase. The Creationist is allowed to choose one battleground after another. Given each choice of battleground, I insist that the battle be fought on that ground. In every case, "scientific" Creationism is defeated. When all the distortions have been removed, all the attempts to flaunt credentials examined, all the misleading quotations returned to their contexts, all the fallacies laid bare, we shall see Creation "science" for what it is — an abuse of science.
- One important theme that I shall emphasize is that, although the Creationist campaign is advertised as an assault on evolutionary16 theory, it really constitutes an attack on the whole of science. Evolutionary17 biology is intertwined with other sciences, ranging from nuclear physics and astronomy to molecular biology and geology. If evolutionary18 biology is to be dismissed, then the fundamental principles of other sciences will have to be excised. All other major fields of science will have to be trimmed — or, more exactly, mutilated to fit the Creationists' bill. Moreover, in attacking the methods of evolutionary19 biology, Creationists are actually criticizing methods that are used throughout science. As I shall argue extensively, there is no basis for separating the procedures and practices of evolutionary20 biology from those that are fundamental to all sciences. If we let the Creationists have their way, we may as well go whole hog. Let us reintroduce the flat-earth theory, the chemistry of the four elements, and mediaeval astrology. For these outworn doctrines have just as much claim to rival current scientific views as Creationism does to challenge evolutionary21 biology.
- My treatment of the methods of science indicates one way in which the book aspires to do more than help the beleaguered victims of creationist assaults. By training, I am a philosopher of science, a person whose business consists in trying to understand what science is and how it works. Ironically, philosophers of science owe the Creationists a debt. For the "scientific" Creationists have constructed a glorious fake, which we can use to illustrate the differences between science and pseudoscience. By examining their scientific pretensions, I have tried to convey a sense of the nature and methods of science. I hope that this book will correct some popular misapprehensions about science, and that it will offer a picture that working scientists will find both congenial and useful.
- A brief outline may help readers to find quickly the discussions that are most relevant to their interests. I begin with a brief introduction to evolutionary22 theory. As anyone who has dipped into the Creationist literature will have realized, Creationists have some acquaintance with scientific terminology; they often use technical language to present their arguments. Successful self-defense requires a modest literacy in the language of evolutionary23 theory. My first chapter attempts to convey just that. People who are familiar with contemporary evolutionary24 theory will want to skip this chapter and plunge in to the controversy. Others may also want to begin with chapter 2 and turn back to chapter 1 only when they encounter unfamiliar ideas.
- Chapters 2-4 constitute a defense of evolutionary25 theory against Creationist objections. I start with the most global criticisms. Creationists delight in laying down criteria for science and then arguing that evolutionary26 theory does not meet their criteria. After showing that their criteria are based on a misunderstanding of the scientific enterprise, I point out that evolutionary27 theory not only passes the real tests for successful science but that it does so with flying colors. Chapter 3 moves on to consider more specific Creationist complaints about the methods of evolutionary28 biology. These turn out to be based on misunderstanding of the methods of science or of evolutionary29 theory – or of both. In chapter I take up the “scientific facts” that are supposed to refute evolution30. All of the Creationists' favorite examples find their place: from the most global to the most local; from the appeal to thermodynamics, through the nature of the fossil record, to very particular biological "findings."
- The fifth chapter offers a critical evaluation of Creation "science." After unearthing what there is of a positive doctrine in the Creationists' welter of words, I consider whether the doctrine can be used to solve any scientific problems. In this context, I discuss the significance of recent debates within evolutionary31 theory and the Creationist proposals for revising the geological time scale. Chapter 6 turns to educational questions, asking in particular what genuine intellectual tolerance requires of us. That chapter concludes with a brief look at some of the tactics that Creationists use in exploiting tolerance. The seventh (and last) chapter examines the charge that evolutionary32 theory is intolerable because it is inimical to religion and morality. Of course, this is what the fuss is all about. However, it will turn out that the theory of evolution33 does not predict (or encourage) the extinction of morality. Nor is the theory opposed to religious belief in general, but only to the views of a particular sect — Creation "scientists."
- This book is not, therefore, an attempt to debunk religion. Nor does it criticize those who accept a literal reading of the Genesis account of Creation simply as an article of religious faith. Although I am critical of Creationism, my business is strictly with a political movement, the movement launched by the "scientific" Creationists and their friends in the Moral Majority. The scientific evidence tells decisively against the literal truth of Genesis. That fact does not mean that religion is refuted. Nor should it perturb anyone who believes, in the tradition of Tertullian and Kierkegaard, that faith can and should transcend any scientific findings. I quarrel only with those who pretend that there is scientific evidence to favor the Genesis story understood literally, who masquerade religious doctrines as scientific explanations, and who try to persuade their fellow citizens to make religious teaching a part of education in science.
Text Colour Conventions (see disclaimer)
- Blue: Text by me; © Theo Todman, 2020
- Mauve: Text by correspondent(s) or other author(s); © the author(s)