What’s the Force Behind Creationism, the Bogeyman of American Science Education?

‘The Bogeyman’ by Duane Michals, 1973

Up until last year, creationists were mythical creatures to me. I always hear about them in US education news, but I never met one.

Then out of the blue, one of my buddies started sounding like a creationist. That day, our conversation became one of those fun debates between friends where there is as much certainty as there is lack of actual facts.

I was intrigued. What’s behind this passion for questioning evolution and Darwinism?

My friend is a computer scientist. I could not simply dismiss his viewpoint as one of those quirks you inevitably discover as you get to know people.

Our conversation also made me realize my ignorance. How does evolution actually work? Why do I think it is true?

So I later read a book called “Evolution: History of an Idea” by Peter Bowler, a recommendation from an old professor. It is now a classic undergraduate textbook — the one I read was a 25th anniversary edition.

In the spirit of friendship, I relate what I learned here, without sarcasm, without snark, without condescension. At the same time, I stick to the historical and scientific facts.

Today, the battlefront is the US education system. But it turns out the first shots between creation and evolution were fired two centuries ago.

Bowler traces the idea of evolution as far back as the ancient Greeks. At that time, it was just one among many explanation of why we have a variety of living organisms.

Evolution became the dominant theory by the 19th century, with rapid increase in the discoveries of fossils.

Two centuries earlier, biblical fundamentalism was born. Let me quote Bowler:

Modern creationists accept a literal interpretation of the Genesis creation story in which the earth was formed only a few thousand years ago. All animal and plant species were miraculously created by God, and all the fossil-bearing rocks were deposited during Noah’s flood. Many assume that the European cultural tradition was founded on the same picture of creation. But there has never been an unbroken period of consensus on this question. Medieval Christians were aware of the complex debates among the ancient Greek philosophers on such issues, and of divergent opinions among the early church fathers. As Catholic evolutionists in the post-Darwinian era showed, no authority could be found among the earliest Christian writers requiring acceptance of a simple creationist perspective. The model of creation accepted by modern fundamentalists was first articulated in the seventeenth century by biblical scholars inspired by the Protestant Reformation.

These two worldviews were in a collision course. It was just a matter of time.

What is behind these two forces? First, I had to understand what “Darwinian” and “evolution” actually mean. From the history of these ideas, I finally understood why evolution through natural selection is so dominant today. The same history also explains why there is so much opposition to it — and possibly why my friend was so passionate in his stance against Darwinism.

It turns out there were a handful of theories on how evolution works. Prior to the discovery of genetics, the most popular one was Lamarckism, named after Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, a French scientist.

Lamarckism says that your offspring inherit characteristics that you gain during your lifetime. For instance, if you become a jacked bodybuilder, your kids will inherit your bulging muscles. Mendelian genetics has proven this not to be the case.

In the 19th century, Gregor Mendel discovered that physical characteristics of parents get passed down to their offspring through a combination of their genes. In fact, the concept of “gene” and the science of genetics came about from his discovery.

It took a while for the scientific community to understand and accept Mendel’s discoveries and its implications. When they did, it discredited Larmarckism as evolution’s mechanism. Darwin’s theory of natural selection, with a bit of modification, became the scientific consensus.

The best explanation of evolution through natural selection I’ve come across is a segment in the second episode of Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Cosmos. At the time of writing, it is available in Netflix. You could also search Youtube for “cosmos polar bear evolution” and you should find the clip. In short:

  • There are sometimes mistakes in the reproduction of DNA
  • These sometimes produce changes in the body or behavior of the creature
  • These changes sometimes give a survival or reproduction advantage (white fur of the polar bear in the video)
  • Those changed DNA get replicated since the ones who have them tend to survive and reproduce more

Darwin was right that evolution came about through natural selection, and not through Larmarckism. Mendel’s discovery and the science of genetics showed us how this actually works.

If you read today’s scientific journals, it is practically impossible to ascertain the political and religious views of their authors. But scientists are also human. As the history of evolution shows, they also ask humanity’s central questions, like “what’s the meaning of life?”

Scientists ask these questions in the context of their work. Some, like Newton and Einstein, saw meaning at the core of our existence, based on the order they saw in the universe. Others, like Darwin, came to doubt whether there was anything beyond the material world. According to Bowler:

The M and N notebooks show that Darwin had already adopted a materialist perspective, at least on how his theory would apply to humankind. […] Darwin saw no room for the traditional notion of soul existing on a purely spiritual plane: the mind was a product of the material activity of the brain, just as phrenologists held. […]

Yet Darwin did not want to reduce the whole universe to a chapter of accidents, with the human race as a produce of mere chance. He felt that the laws of nature were instituted by a wise and perhaps a benevolent God. (p.163)

Darwin was a pro. The M and N notebooks contain Darwin’s private musings and were not intended to be made public. It appears his published writings were generally confined to the scientific — to what is measurable and falsifiable — according to this analysis in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Many of his contemporaries did not have such boundaries. As evolution gained wider acceptance, ideologues of all stripes used it to promote their own worldviews. Bowler relates how the champions of both Communism and of Capitalism used Darwinism to support their ideologies. Karl Marx saw materialist implications in Darwin’s theory, but found “survival of the fittest” to be a reflection of capitalist individualism. Adam Smith, on the other hand, saw Darwinian evolution as analogous to the evolution of the human economy, from hunter-gatherers, to agriculture, to industrial capitalism.

The most damning association for Darwin, however, was how his theory was used to support racism and eugenics. Bowler relates the fears of eugenicists:

Far from natural selection weeding out the unfit, in a civilized society it was the unfit who produced most of the next generation. Darwin himself had worried about this, and by the end of the century the eugenics movement was openly pleading for a policy of artificial selection applied to the human race.

Eugenics typified the increasingly popular ideology of genetic determinism, the claim that a person’s character and abilities were predetermined at birth by the power of inheritance. In a sense, the racist policies discussed above express a form of this ideology, since they assume that an individual’s character is fixed by the race to which that person belongs. (p.308)

Bowler connects the same mindset to the idea that segments of society are “unfit.”

All too often, it turned out that when the expected differences were mapped onto the social classes, the poor class contained the larger portion of unfit individuals.

There were other forms of genetic determinism, however, one obvious version being the widely held opinion of Victorian men that women were intellectually inferior. (p.308)

No wonder my friend distrusted Darwinian evolution, despite not knowing what that really meant (I now realize both of us were quite ignorant, despite how certain we sounded in our conversations). Darwin’s name was used by the sleaziest ideologues of the 20th century.

Nerdiest poolside reading ever?

My friend and I are Catholic, so I wanted to check what thought leaders of the church think about creation and evolution. I knew that leading Catholic thinkers do not see eye to eye with creationists, and I wanted to know why.

I read a book entitled “Creation and Evolution: A Conference with Pope Benedict XVI.” It contains the lectures and discussions from a conference hosted by Benedict XVI. It was more readable than I expected. I got so into it, I typed out 25 pages of highlights in a Google Doc. Here’s one from Pope Benedict which I think goes to the heart of this conflict:

Of course the question remains open whether being, understood in such a way as a path — that is, evolution as a whole — has meaning, and it cannot be decided within the theory of evolution itself; for that theory this is a methodologically foreign question, although of course for a live human being it is the fundamental question of the whole thing. Science rightly acknowledges its limits in this regard and declares that this question, which is indispensable for man, cannot be answered within science, but only within the framework of a “faith system”.

My instinct was to side with science, perhaps due to my upbringing. My friend seemed to have a deep distrust of Darwinism, perhaps due to its association with history’s worst ideologues. Pope Benedict zooms out and lays out the path of this collision. He asks: what kind of question are we asking and what kind of method are we using to answer it?

To a layman like me, the scientific method is simply the right tool for answering matters that are measurable and falsifiable. Being such, a community of scientists could resolve its (scientific) disagreements by designing and replicating experiments. As I went deeper into this conflict, I discovered that to its combatants, this definition of science, or its validity, is also a matter of debate.

At the heart of creationism appears to be a distrust of science, or at least deference to a literal interpretation of the Bible in the face of evidence from experimental science and the consensus of the scientific community. Kurt Wise, a creationist with a PhD in palaeontology from Harvard, expresses this viewpoint:

Although there are scientific reasons for accepting a young earth, I am a young age creationist because that is my understanding of the Scripture. As I shared with my professors years ago when I was in college, if all the evidence in the universe turns against creationism, I would be the first to admit it, but I would still be a creationist because that is what the Word of God seems to indicate.

It turns out this viewpoint has a name: Fundamentalism.

At the other corner are the successors of ideologues of the 20th century. They continue to use the good reputation of science to promote their ideology. The script is essentially “Trust me, I’m a scientist. Oh by the way, here’s my philosophy. Just trust me, I’m a scientist.”

This script also has a name: Scientism.

I’m currently several episodes into Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Cosmos, and I’m enjoying it immensely. So far, I don’t detect usage of this script. This contrasts with the first version of the series, the one by the legendary Carl Sagan. This is the very first line of the very first episode of that show:

The cosmos is all that is, or ever was, or ever will be.

I don’t know about you, but that sounds like philosophy to me. It seems the battle for American science education has been waged since Sagan’s time, and perhaps this was just one of his shots as a combatant in that war of ideas.

Watching this battle play out in the US, I am torn between my trust in the scientific method and my wariness for scientism. Bowler has similar concerns.

To some extent, the defense of scientific evolutionism may depend on educating the public to give them a better understanding of what science really is: not a collection of facts but a system for generating hypotheses and testing them against the facts. (p.347)

[…]

The defenders of evolution have to some extent played into the hands of their opponents by actually claiming that it is a fact. But clearly it is not, at least not in a sense that a layperson understands the term: it is a theory better supported by the facts than any of the alternatives. (p.381)

This debate becomes even hairier when you throw in Intelligent Design. From the perspective of education, I think this is essentially a debate about the nature of science, and thus the scope of science education. It turns out there is a whole academic discipline called Philosophy of Science which tackles this question. It is a very deep rabbit hole which I will resist diving into.

I’m satisfied for now. I have enough new ammunition the next time I have beer with my friend. But this may make our debate much less entertaining; I think I finally understand where he is coming from.

I just hope no one among my friends and family comes out as a flat-earther. I’ll probably need to do a PhD in Psychology or something to begin to understand that.

Hand-raiser