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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.