Why Evolution Matters: The Case against Benign Tolerance
Trading on the publicity generated by the so-called “debate” between Bill Nye and creationist Ken Ham which took place at the Creation Museum in Kentucky on February 4, William Saletan has written a piece for Slate, urging that it doesn’t matter that Ham or any of his followers believe in “creationism,” because it has no real world consequences. (If you have not heard of either Ken Ham or this farcical “debate,” you are probably better off. But if you are to read Saletan’s piece or this post, you might want to see bits of the debate itself, which is posted in its entirety on YouTube.) He argues that Nye overstates the case that Ham is anti-science and claims that such a belief can be compartmentalized in a way that allows the believer to otherwise participate fully in modernism, including all parts of science and technology.
The piece is not rank idiocy as is much of the “defense” of the supposed thought-system of creationism. Saletan freely admits that creationism is an absurd and logically inconsistent view of the world, unsupported by shred of evidence. It requires suspension of disbelief in favor of a particular version of a single ancient religious source, and there is no principle based on anything other than solipsism that would allow one to select that particular text and that particular interpretation of the text to the exclusion of others. Nevertheless, Salaten claims that if the belief can be compartmentalized, in the way he says Ham has done, it allows the believer to participate fully in every science, technology and other modern reason-dictated endeavor, only permitting him a peculiar notion of history, which has no real bearing on what we are about today.
First, I have to acknowledge that Slate has a well-deserved reputation for advancing contrarian pieces as mere click-baits, and Saletan is one of the more regular practitioners of this form of hucksterism. But, notwithstanding the first point, Saletan’s argument is plausible-sounding and not odiously provocative as most pandering pieces trolling for advertisement hits are. Moreover, Saletan’s general perspective draws on a long line of respect or tolerance of diversity in opinion, most notably expressed by Thomas Jefferson’s quip: “It does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are 20 gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.” But Saletan’s suggestion that Ham’s belief is simply quirky misconceives the nature of the creationist enterprise. And while we all have quirky superstitions (except perhaps the self-deluded or the excessively prissy rationalists), it is not the same thing to hit the dirt around the batter’s box before taking a swing and actually believing that those actions are required for one to hit the ball (and to collect money for paying people to disseminate such a belief and proselytize others). With these caveats in mind, let’s see if there is a way that Mr. Answers in Genesis ought to be invited into the conversation of 21th century humanism.
Debunking creationism is a full-time endeavor done much better by others (for instance, Talk Origins). I generally avoid thinking about the creationist empire of thought, because it reduces me to a kind of despair over the educability of a large segment of the population. “Debating” creationists is a largely self-defeating endeavor, because they defend no particular position, their position cannot be falsified (because it uses increasing abstractions to avoid any sort of empirical examination), and the debater confronts a mind-set so fundamentally anti-modern and anti-rational that it saps strength better employed in learning from and teaching those who are willing to engage in non-dogmatic discourse.
It would be one thing if Saletan’s piece were simply an updated rebuke (first uttered by one whom the creationists claim to respect) to the effect: “Give not that which is holy unto the dogs, neither cast ye your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn again and rend you.” But it is more. It claims that the belief itself is harmless and that “scientists” can fully function in every respect that is important to modern humanity while still carving out a space for this odd falsehood. I here briefly list the reasons why this argument is ultimately wrong.
1. It is not possible to compartmentalize a belief in a falsehood. Saletan claims that once Ham has subscribed to a notion that everything was personally created 6,000 years ago (and that a short time later life on earth was destroyed except for what was saved by Noah on a wooden barque), he is able to believe everything else that we believe thereafter. He even believes in a sort of evolution, because everything we know must have come from the Ark by some natural process (the Bible does not say otherwise) from the time of Noah. He can believe in plate tectonics, mutation, evolution of viruses (and therefore the theory behind vaccines), seeming relatedness of organisms (genetically and phenotypically), and so forth. He is able to do this because he can posit that God gave everything a “backstory.” He created stars hundreds of millions of light years away already with seeming ancient light already streaming the whole way to Earth. He created sediment layers with a seeming history that goes back before creation. He allows seeming survival of the fittest on multiple layers, in the wild, in our bodies, among our cells, between parasites, hosts, symbionts, etc. — well, we don’t know why he does that, but it doesn’t necessary show a history, according to Ham.
The problem is that this theory bleeds around the edges. It sets up barriers to inquiry which can only be overcome by appeal to a non-rational trick (one not supported by any text in the Bible): that God intended us to believe, given the overwhelming evidence, in something historically untrue; namely, that the universe, the earth, life and our ancestry go back untold millions of years before they did.
To believe that God played this trick is to inform one’s view of the “personality” of God. Is he a deceiver? Does he want us to not believe in him? Is this all a game? Answers to these questions must inform the world-view of people like Ham, who have to do intellectual gymnastics (and failing to land the jump) to maintain a belief that is not really required by the religious text.
2. Young creationist beliefs make much of science unreliable. Evolution, the descent of all Earth-based living things from one (or as Darwin backtracked “a few forms,” see the last sentence of On the Origin of Species), is the central organizing principle of modern biology. This endeavor involves much more than simply a view of ancient, irrelevant history. The principles of evolution, the relatedness of all living things, the mechanisms by which living things differentiate themselves over time, is central to all aspects of biology, including medicine. It involves a view of the operation of genes, the relation of parts of an ecosystem, the reliability of testing on organisms for technologies that are designed for use on humans, and so forth. Saletan dismisses this by saying that Ham believes that all of that started the day after creation. But such a belief is nonsense.
It is not simply biology that is implicated. Young earth creationism denies the entire endeavor of geology, which is based on the fundamental principle of uniformitarianism. It makes unreliable all inquiry in astronomy, astrophysics, cosmology.
Let’s just look at geology. The assumptions that sediment layers reveal history has been accepted since the days of James Hutton. It is the basis of much of the reconstruction of geological history. That history in turn is used for making inferences about things like atmospheric gas content in particular ages. Those inferences can be compared to evidence of consequences of particular atmospheric conditions, including climate, conditions of life, large scale cycles like carbon cycles, volcanism, ocean currents, ocean chemical and mineral content. In turn a reconstruction of the geological conditions of the past can lead to modeling of climate and other conditions under similar circumstances in the future. Much of the modeling of climate change is confirmed by conditions described by historical geology. This, of course, is why many people choose to disbelieve it.
In short, belief in unscientific history has real world consequences, and in the case of climate change, potentially existential consequences.
3. Creationism is a sectarian belief promulgated by a particular type of fundamentalism. It should be apparent from the name of the organization behind Ham’s Creation Museum (“Answers in Genesis”) that the enterprise doesn’t even purport to be one seeking new knowledge. The answers are already there! It is in fact simply a peculiar form of cultish belief. Not all Christians believe in special Deistic creation. In fact, not all fundamentalists believe in young earth creationism (as this odd clip of the notorious Pat Robertson, no shrinking flower when it comes to confronting modernism shows). The enterprise seeks followers (not scholars).
4. The enterprise obtains money from the public and uses it to waste more public money. Ham’s organization collects money, not just from gullible followers, but also from the taxpayer. Ham succeeded in having Governor Steve Beshear (a Democrat!) propose a $43 million tax break for the construction of an “ark” like in Genesis during a time when the state budget called for a 6.4 percent cut to education. This is real money not being spent on the hungry, the unemployed, real science, research or education. Moreover, Ham is not alone. Creationists at the Discovery Institute and related entities solicit funds, based on the same “quirk” that Ham believes in, and then use the money not only to proselytize, but also to litigate in favor a filling schools with this “quirky” belief. Moreover, the Discovery Institute not only promotes creationism, it sponsors a wide variety of conservative and reactionary thought on public policy including taxes and spending. Fundamentalism has fellow travelers among the right wing. In fact it is one ideological, and fund-raising arm, of modern American, anti-intellectual reaction.
5. Belief in a falsehood has consequences. Would you want your child taught by someone who openly professes that there is a conspiracy among Jewish bankers to control the world? Is the answer obvious because you know that such a belief carries with it other beliefs and programs that are antithetical to modern life? What if your child’s history teacher believed that Illuminism was a driving force in modern thought since the Enlightenment and is a secret worship of the devil?
The fact is that people who hold “quirky” beliefs do so because they have an agenda. (Otherwise, why wouldn’t they take the “converse” of Saletan’s view and say, It’s ok to believe in evolution and compartmentalize it when it from one’s thoughts about religion, ethics, public policy, etc.? In fact, creationists claim the opposite; e.g., if you believe in evolution you must believe in eugenics, that there can be no ethical system, that human life has no value.) The agenda of creationists is usually anti-modern, and it appeals to the hidden prejudices and irrational hatreds of people who are otherwise disillusioned. How could it be that nearly every single scientist who studied the matter in depth for at least the last 90 years subscribes to the framework of evolution principally driven by natural selection and to the historical fact of evolution by other mechanisms by nearly all scientists for 50 years before that? The answer has to be stunning ignorance or a conspiracy. Of course, the delusional, magical thinking of creationists is ripe among those most willing to believe in conspiracies. But if a belief requires the positing of a sinister, fraudulent agreement by elites, then that belief has consequences on its followers’ world view well beyond this particular “quirk.” It is not a surprise that most creationists (especially young earth creationists) also believe that anthropocentric climate change is a fraudulent program foisted on us by a cabal of sinister elites. And as we move out from the epicenter of this particular cultish belief, we see how liberalism, activist government, humanism in all forms and even charity itself becomes, to many, conspiratorial frauds.
The belief in this so-called conspiracy leads fundamentalists to promote the argument that Darwin was the predecessor of Hitler and Stalin. The belief in this cultish “quirk” therefore engenders an unhealthy demonization of free thinkers and scientists in general. It is no accident that it does, because the cult itself is designed to promote group-think, group-ritual, and group-politics.
Ignorance about scientists, the other alternative, is hardly a healthier attitude among Ham’s followers. I remember years ago being forced to read a magazine designed for young adults, promoting fundamentalism by debunking evolution. One thing sticks in my mind: Someone wrote the Darwinian thought had an obvious flaw; namely, that it only accounted for the descent of man, not women! Therefore, how did women get here? (Only cultish followers of a charismatic authoritarian would assume that the most vacuous impulse of a semi-thought in favor of a predetermined conclusion is worth expressing.)
This kind of sloppy thinking, in which the objections are generated before even examining the evidence, or even the nature of the theoretical framework, is not healthy. It is not something that taxpayers should support or schools teach (under the nonsensical notion that they ought to “teach the debate”). It is really the flaw that will (I am afraid) bring down humanity long before “Nature, red in tooth and claw” otherwise would.
In short, there is no substantial basis for believing that Ham’s “view of life” (in Darwin’s memorable phrase) is benign. It cannot be compartmentalized. It has real world consequences. And it is not healthy for a thinking person to shut off a part of his mind. But you all knew that.