Saturday, April 30, 2022

You tell me that it's evolution, well, you know...

It has been a frustrating several decades for science since John Whitcomb and Henry Morris published The Genesis Flood in 1961, the book that laid the groundwork for modern biblical literalist creationism. Those authors just flatly denied what science had appreciated since the early 1800s: that the earth is very old, and has been populated at different times by diverse creatures that were quite different from living ones, although frequently resembling them. While there has always been religiously-based resistance to Darwinism, it was a rare anti-intellectual who dared venture into “young-earth creationism”. Even William Jennings Bryan, Clarence Darrow’s antagonist in the famous Scopes trial, volunteered the fact that he was an “old-earth” creationist, to the surprise of both sides in the courtroom. 

DARROW:  Would you say the earth was only 4,000 years old?
BRYAN:  Oh no, I think it is much older than that.
DARROW:  How much?
BRYAN:  I couldn't say.
DARROW:  Do you say whether the Bible itself says it is older than that?
BRYAN:  I don't think the Bible says itself whether it is older or not.
DARROW:  Do you think the earth was made in six days?
BRYAN:  Not six days of twenty-four hours.
DARROW:  Doesn't it say so?
BRYAN:  No, sir.

In other words, “young-earth creationism” was too stupid even for William Jennings Bryan in 1925.

The Genesis Flood, on the other hand, began in 1961 with the premise that the Bible relates literal history; the Bible says that the Earth is merely thousands of years old; therefore it must be; and therefore all species lived at the same time, not so long ago. Almost as an afterthought, evolution must be false as a simple consequence of this biblical revisionism. This begged the question of how animals actually came to be fossilized, short of having been magically petrified by the visage of the gorgon Medusa; or how particular fossils came to be very consistently deposited in similar formations of rock layers, in spite of all that sloshing of the flood waters. It left you to wonder how the modern lemurs made it to Madagascar, and nowhere else; or how the koalas made it from Mount Ararat in the Near East all the way to Australia, without eucalyptus forests in between.

Most importantly, though, The Genesis Flood enjoined the reader to simply reject lots and lots of real and scholarly geology in favor of some dopey alt-geology. Where might such a bizarre suggestion come from? Saying that science has gotten something wrong is not in itself threatening. After all, when we teach that science is self-correcting, that is quite specifically what we mean: Science has gotten something wrong and we are correcting it.

The context of modern biblical literalist creationism bears some examination. Today it is fashionable to regard creationists along with anti-vaccinators, anthropogenic climate-change deniers, and flat-earthers, as part of a vast conspiracy of stupid. But there are two problems with this view. First, science is, and has sometimes famously been, wrong. When American geneticists of the 1920s said that we needed to sterilize the poor and restrict immigrants on account of their “bad germ-plasm,” it was the anti-science mobilization of the civil libertarians, social scientists, political conservatives, and religious Catholics that we can admire in retrospect for standing up to the geneticists. And second, we don’t know the degree of overlap among the anti-vaccinators, anthropogenic climate-change deniers, flat-earthers, and creationists.  Although some of them rationalize their beliefs with Bible verses, only the creationists are actually religiously motivated. In fact, even the creationists think the flat-earthers are nuts. 

St. Augustine, a Hippo
In other words, creationism represents a special kind of anti-science, rooted in a particular hermeneutic treatment of the Bible: selective biblical literalism. It’s selective because, as even St. Augustine of Hippo  recognized, when you read that Adam and Eve’s “eyes were opened” after eating the fruit in the Garden of Eden, you simply can’t imagine that they had been walking around the Garden with their eyes closed, bumping into things. It has got to be a figure of speech, not to be taken literally.

There is a different context for looking at creationism, however. Scarcely a decade before The Genesis Flood, the scientific world was scandalized by a Bible-based book of a different sort. It was called Worlds in Collision, written by psychoanalyst named Immanuel Velikovsky.

Velikovsky was not a literalist, nor was he concerned with the book of Genesis. His interest lay in Exodus, but his biblical focus was rooted in an equally ridiculous premise: Since all myths and legends are ultimately based upon real events (rather than just being stories, like Cosette and the Thenardiers, or Oliver Twist and Fagin, or Luke Skywalker and the Death Star) then what actual circumstances might have been the inspiration for the miracle-infused biblical Exodus from Egypt? In particular, what might have started things off by turning the Nile to blood, Plague Number One of Ten – or at least to something that Bronze Age yokels might have mistaken for blood? The subsequent plagues of Egypt would also receive naturalistic explanations too – frogs making their own amphibious exodus from the now-toxic river, then hosting insect vermin as disease made its way up the food chain, eventually culminating in mass deaths – hazily misremembered and misrecorded as merely the Egyptian first-born.

But what started it off, turning the Nile river to blood?

Velikovsky had an answer, and peppered his biblical exegesis as well with tendentious renderings of ethnographic and archaeological texts. What had turned the Nile red and undrinkable was red matter that had fallen into the Nile from the surface of the planet Venus. How did it get there? The planet Venus had just come into existence, having been expelled as a comet from the Great Red Spot of Jupiter; and was shooting through the solar system, eventually banging into Mars before both planets settled into their separate orbits just a few thousand years ago. It was an ingenious theory, with only one obstacle in its way: astronomy.  So Velikovsky invented his own alt-astronomy and settled into the #1 slot of the New York Times best-seller list in the Spring of 1950.

Needless to say, astronomers did not take this at all well. Sadly, though, they did a spectacularly poor job of engaging with Velikovsky’s work, beginning with threatening its publisher. Their fulminations were properly dismissive, necessarily technical, sometimes ad hominem, and occasionally incoherent. Eventually, though, Worlds in Collision faded from view, and today you can generally only find Velikovsky’s ideas by searching for them on the internet. Nevertheless, both Worlds in Collision and The Genesis Flood prominently cast themselves against science, and in favor of their particular interpretations of the Bible. One bluntly opposed astronomy, the other opposed geology. Yet the biblical text figures prominently in both, as misunderstood “history” in the colliding planets narrative, and as properly-understood “history” in creationist narratives.

We (in the human evolution community) have engaged most commonly with biblical literalist creationism as a false theory of biology, or as an archaic remnant of older modes of thought; but it is reactionary, not primitive, and treating it as a false story simply replicates the astronomers’ frustrating engagement with Worlds in Collision. It will always prove unsuccessful to engage with creationism as “our story is true and yours is false” – since at very least, many aspects of any story of human evolution are debatable or downright inaccurate. Indeed, both evolutionist and creationist narratives of human origins have at times freely incorporated racist elements.

But Velikovsky had fashioned a mold: a Bible-validating narrative, and the replacement of real science with his own. And he largely succeeded in focusing the resulting debate on the nature of the story he had to tell – science had theirs, and Velikovsky had his.

That was 1950. The Genesis Flood was 1961. And a decade after that, Erich von Däniken published his best-seller, called Chariots of the Gods?  Once again, the Bible figured prominently, but this time with God’s presence as mis-remembered and mis-reported visitations by ancient astronauts. And the only thing standing in its way was archaeology.

Yet while the colliding worlds astronomy scenario has all but vanished, young-earth creationism and the ancient astronauts are very much still with us. Creationism’s biology scenario is touted in evangelical churches across America, and the ancient astronauts archaeology scenario is touted on The History Channel. Approximately as any people believe it as believe creationism, and we have no idea how much those 40% or so of Americans overlap with one another. 

It’s not simply the rejection of science, but the arrogant construction of a different science, based in some measure on an idiosyncratic interpretation of the Bible. That is what connects the colliding worlds, young-earth creationists, and ancient aliens.  And one thing seems clear: arguing over whose story is right is not a successful strategy. “You” may believe that the planets have been more-or-less as they presently are for billions of years, but “we” believe that Venus is only 3500 years old. And why are you trying to disabuse us of that? Don’t we have a right to believe it? Come to think of it, aren’t you just being an intolerant archaic throwback to colonialist hegemonic practice?

The joint possession of secret knowledge is, after all, a pretty obvious form of social bond.  People who believe the Jets are going to the Super Bowl have something to agree on and to hope for together, regardless of any basis it might have in reality.

Would it give you pleasure to try and convince them otherwise? To me, that's a bit sadistic. I agree rather with H. L. Mencken, who said something like: Everyone is entitled to the belief that their spouse is attractive and their children are smart. 

Talking people out of their delusions can be fun, don't get me wrong. I just don't think it should be the goal of science education. It's one thing to teach what scientists believe, and quite another to insist that everyone believe as you do. 

Instead, we should be focusing on how scientific stories get made, and why their odd beliefs aren’t science. How do we explain appropriate scholarly practice to those who have never experienced it? That's the pedagogical challenge. But this is the complementary intellectual domain of the humanities:  turning the conversation away from the content of the science itself, and towards the nature of scientific epistemologies. That is to say, what makes something scientific knowledge as opposed to unscientific knowledge.

And sure, if you want to go for broke, why, in most contexts, scientific knowledge is more reliable than unscientific knowledge.

But this will necessarily be a humanistic conversation, and it may not be one that scientists are comfortable with, but it is probably a conversation that has a better chance of making a difference than just insisting that they’re wrong and you’re right.

Or, to put it in the non-scientific domain of morality: Don't be an asshole.

No comments:

Post a Comment