Thursday, July 4, 2013

Creationism as a problem in applied anthropology

I’ve been engaging with creationists in various ways for longer than most people have.  I met my first one in the graduate dorm at the University of Arizona around 1976.  I couldn’t believe it; I felt like I was talking  to a medieval necromancer. 

               That was a long time ago, over 35 years, and we have been spectacularly unsuccessful  in our engagement with creationism since then.  Obviously there are people who have worked wonderfully in defense of science education, like my dear friend Genie Scott, without whose efforts there would probably be twenty states banning the teaching of evolution altogether today.  But the fact remains that over the last twenty years or so, about half of adult Americans have consistently self-identified as creationists.

               Rather than ask what’s wrong with them ,why they are such morons, as one usually hears in this context, I think we should turn it around and look at that fact as a statement about the colossal failure of science education.  Now let  me make my point clear at the outset:  I am not denying that the creationists are ignoramuses; I am saying that that fact does not dictate a solution to the problem of creationism.  The solution comes from first identifying it as a problem of applied anthropology.

               Again, full disclaimer.  I am not a very spiritual person, and certainly not a creationist.  My dues to the National Center for Science Education are paid in full, and unless you’re Genie, I’ve probably been a member of NCSE longer than you have.  I can be an asshole, but I don’t believe that it makes for good negotiations.   When I taught intro physical anthropology at Berkeley back in the late 1990s, I had Phil Johnson come over and give a guest lecture on Intelligent Design.  I think my students (who already had heard about Natural Theology, because I gave them the intellectual context for understanding Darwinism) learned more about it from him than they would have from me.  And I learned more about it from lunch with Phil Johnson than I did from reading his work.  Or, as I once put it in the Anthropology News (Nov.  2005, p. 3)

Now there are a lot of intersecting political agendas here.  Republicans, for example, refuse to acknowledge anthropogenic climate change for different reasons  than evolution.  The first is about corporate economic interests; the second is about theology.

               Anyway, this post is inspired by a viral video  from a few months ago, when Louisiana was holding hearings to try and repeal the latest in a seemingly endless series of creationist bills.

               A retired science teacher named Darlene Reaves gives testimony, and is queried by a legislator named Sen Walsworth  about experimental evidence for “Darwin’s theory of evolution”.  He seems to take “Darwin’s theory of evolution” to mean, quite reasonably, something about the origin of people by a naturalistic transformation of simpler forms of life.  And he has heard that science privileges experimental results, so he asks her about the experimental evidence for human evolution.

               But rather than say, “There is a lot of indirect experimental evidence” and perhaps go on to talk about it, she responds with evidence for her idea of Darwinian evolution, which, again quite reasonably, means (to her) descent with modification and adaptation by natural selection. 

               Her initial response (@ 0:21) is about observational evidence, not experimental evidence, and the lawmaker corrects her.  She insists that he pay attention, and she goes on to talk about the fossil record.   This is nice, but it’s not an answer to the question.

               So he tries again, and asks her for “an experiment that proves [Darwin’s theory of evolution] beyond a shadow of a doubt.”  And she responds with a discussion of selection in bacterial colonies.

               There are only three things wrong with this response, as far as I can see.    First, even on a good day, it would have little to do literally with “Darwin’s theory of evolution” since Darwin didn’t know anything about bacteria, or how they evolve.  Second, even creationists generally will concede that microevolution happens, and as Darwin understood, you just need domesticated plants and animals to show it; the question is, can you extrapolate from that to the history of life?  The Origin of Species is, in Mayr’s famous phrase, “one long argument” that indeed you can.  But the point needs to be argued, because it is unprovable experimentally.  (The most important argument IMHO, is: If you can’t extrapolate simply and easily from microevolution to macroevolution, and there are  complications like speciation, then just how is that an argument for biblical literalism?)  Third, if we accept the unarticulated premise that there is a connection between bacterial selection and human origins, the fact remains that he is interested in people and she is answering about bacteria.  That’s why he asks @ 0:52: “They evolved into a person?”

               The questioner has asked what is, on the surface at least, a very simple question: Is there an experiment you can do to prove that humans arose by naturalistic processes from ape ancestors?  The correct answer would be “No” and to follow it with an excursus into scientific epistemology.   But that would require interacting with scholars in the humanities, and thinking about other things than biology – like history, anthropology, and philosophy – and that would probably hurt.

               So instead, we answer “Yes” and declare our interlocutors to be idiots. 

               Which is the strategy that has been failing for decades.

               But the history of colonialism shows pretty clearly that powerful groups who declare their antagonists to be ignorant fools simply manage to foster long-term resentments.  That is why I think this is an applied anthropology problem.  The lawmaker doesn’t understand the concept of model organisms – the idea that we can learn something about our own species by studying other, “simpler” species.  Explain it to them!   Otherwise the endeavor sounds like “the  old bait-and-switch” in which the scientist gives answers to questions that aren’t asked, and doesn’t answer the questions that are.   The stupid creationist is interested in human origins, but is being lectured about bacteria, and actually asks what that has to do with humans, because, as he says at @ 1:03, “I think that’s what we’re talking about”.  To which the biology teacher responds, “That’s not what we’re talking about.  We’re talking about evolution.”

               Sadly, the only modern ethnographic study of creationism is by a mathematician.  I haven't read it yet, because frankly I struggle with ethnography by actual ethnographers.  (There’s also the nice old one by Chris Toumey, God’s Own Scientists, but that was even before Intelligent Design re-galvanized the anti-evolution political lobby.)