Thursday, August 22, 2013

The recreation of creationism; a sporting event

Here's a piece from 2009, which we repost with very little revision.  We were reminded that it's still timely, particularly in light of the acknowledgement by Ken Ham, one of the leading young earth creationists, that Intelligent Design is not a science (HT to Holly Dunsworth). At the end, we'll have a comment or two about this....

Recreating Creationism
Teaching evolution in the schools is still a big issue. Workshops, forums, debates and so forth are frequently held to discuss how it should be done, and they draw much interest.  They sound like they are serious, sober academic discussions about policy and the like. But since this is anything but a new phenomenon, and the issues have been aired countless times, and science invariably wins in the courts, why is it still going on?

It is not really that we have to arm or prepare ourselves in any technical sense to present compelling new facts--the evidence that evolution is a truth about life is solid, and has been for a long, long time. The facts are out there, in public and on daily television. Instead, these meetings are a kind of recreation: again and again it's the re-creation of creationism as a sporting event.

Revival meeting at the Olympic Theatre in Charters Towers, Queensland, 1912; Wikimedia Commons
And they are generally preaching to the converted. The audience already knows the facts, and likes to cite them aggressively, needing no cue cards to know when to give a derisive snort. In fact, as sincere as they may be, and as much public service as they may be doing, some advocates for teaching evolution don't really understand evolution at a very deep level relative to the knowledge we now have in genetics and population biology.  Nor is sufficient appreciation given to aspects about life that we don't know or even may not know that we don't know.

These meetings are not being held because creationism has amassed legitimate arguments that threaten evolution and require careful rebuttal. Anyone who is even halfway aware of biology and geology knows that literal creationism is simply bunk, and truthfully, most Intelligently Designed Creationists know this too, in their heart of hearts. They know the Devil didn't plant Ardipithecus to mislead us into lives of sin.

But bashing these benighted people has become something of a self-congratulatory blood sport. Indeed, many biology blogs--that get thousands of hits--cover this subject tirelessly, usually with great glee, thumbing their noses at the benighted creationists, but rarely is anything new being said. For that reason we try to avoid evolution-creation 'lectures', and don't regularly follow the food-fight blogs. Our open minds are closed to the point that we've never been to an Intelligent Design-sponsored event, and we'd be willing to bet that anyone reading this who has didn't go to honestly weigh the evidence in favor of intelligent design.

Indeed, we all come at this "debate" with our preconceived notions safely intact--and leave with them untouched. At these events it is repeatedly said that the organizers want 'dialog', not confrontation, but that's insider-code for "we want to educate these poor souls, so they'll convert to our point of view."

It's 154 years since the publication of The Origin of Species but the evolution-creation debate, with all of its current vituperation, goes back well before Darwin. Darwin in fact tapped into discussions that had been fueled (in the UK) by an 1844 book called Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, by an amateur naturalist named Robert Chambers, and as Darwin acknowledged in his Preface, it made the environment more receptive to his own book. And even Chambers basically rested on already known facts and ideas.

People often cite figures about the large proportion of the US population that doesn't 'believe in' evolution as evidence that science education is failing in this country. But, this is not about educating the uneducated. If our kids, or your kids, were taught ID in school, we, and you, would unteach what they'd learned as soon as they got home. Symmetrically, when evolution is taught, this is what fundamentalists do when their kids get home. If they sincerely feel that a belief in evolution will jeopardize their child's chance of life everlasting, they must do such reconditioning.  Every child is largely home-schooled, or at least home-acculturated--in spite of the number of hours they spend in class.

And even if science education demonstrably is lacking, and should be seriously upgraded, the divide is not about the facts anyway. Most creationists readily accept that animal breeds can be molded by artificial selection, that bacteria can evolve antibiotic resistance, and so on--it's not about whether evolution per se can happen. It's partly at least about not being able to accept that humans aren't above Nature, and weren't landed intact on Earth by a Creator.

But, really, how much difference does it make? Theodosius Dobzhansky famously said, in the context of the school debate in 1973, that nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution. This statement is cited almost religiously by evolution proponents. But it's not really true--much of biology can be done very productively with no reference to evolution at all. Many life scientists, especially for example in biomedical research, have little more than a cardboard cutout understanding of evolution and do their work perfectly, or imperfectly, well without it.  We write about these shortcomings regularly.

And whether or not creationists accept the truth of evolution is not an issue with many practical implications to speak of--it's not like not accepting vaccinations or the importance of clean water.

We said above that this was only 'partly' about the fact of human origins. No matter how manifestly uneducated the uneducated truly are in this area, this is a clash of world views, a conflict over cultural and even economic power, a battle against fear (of death), for feelings of belonging to a comforting tribe, and so on. And the often vehement intolerance of biologists, equally convinced about their own tribal validity, is of a similar nature.

Perhaps it's easy for us to be cavalier about this because science always wins in court in the long run.  In the industrialized world the practical facts and empirical results of their application are far too powerful to be stymied, at least at present.  Indeed, like many of you, we followed the 2005 Dover trial here in Pennsylvania with interest, and we like others found Judge Jone's decision to be brilliantly argued, and routinely assign it to our students, generally when we also teach about the somewhat symmetric misconceptions about the 1926 Tennessee Scopes Trial (see Ken's article in his Crotchets & Quiddities columns: the trial was less of a straightforward win for Truth than it is often portrayed).

Many if not most senior evolutionary biologists alive today (including us) were trained with essentially evolution-free textbooks in their high school biology, in public schools in which they (we) recited a morning prayer, every school day from grades 1 through 12. Evolution had deliberately been purged by the textbook publishers to prevent loss of sales to states in certain regions of our country. Lack of early evolutionary training clearly doesn't hamper later learning. And evolutionary training manifestly doesn't generate understanding. Other factors are involved.

What the answer is, is unclear, if the question is "Why can't they be like us???" Maybe it's a selfish one: let those in the Creationist world have their schools as they want them. That will mean those with correct knowledge, your children and ours, will face fewer competitors for the desirable jobs in science and and other areas where properly educated people are required.

At least, those who can't stay away from the Creationist food fight should recognize that they are largely exercising their egos--and recreating Creationism over and over, to knock it down again and again. It's their tribal totem-dance, war paint and all. Serious resolution will come at a much higher price than blogging, no matter how many followers anti-creationist bloggers pull in, and it will come in a form as yet unknown. But that form will almost surely have to involve increased teacher salaries, higher education-major SATs, and education certificates given to those whose major was science and not education.

Some afterthoughts (August 2013)
These points, edited in minor ways for clarity but basically as written in 2009, are still relevant.  The anti-creationist forces in the country are doing an important job in resisting mindless creationism, but at the same time they often promulgate simplistic views of evolution.  Too many scientists in this arena are afraid to acknowledge all that we don't know.  Here, 'evolution' is a word with unclear connotations, and that can be important.

Does 'evolution' just mean descent from a common materially induced ancestry, without divine intervention, through historical processes?  Or does it imply some particular role for natural selection, and if so, what is that role?  What role does it allow for chance?  How deterministic are its assumptions about genes and the nature of organisms?

We can never know when and whether we will discover some fundamentally different facts about how life works, not just adjustments in our current knowledge (which is the incremental way that much of biology deals with the 'unknowns', with perhaps more confidence than is warranted).  But what seems entirely secure is the descent from common origins and a role for differential proliferation related to the nature of environments.  We can't know as much about the details of events in the distant past, but new discoveries never suggest that the basic idea is wrong.

On the other hand, some people simply believe that we are wrong, in some morally important ways, and they cling to non-materialistic views.  Unfortunately, as we said in 2009 and it's still relevant, these are struggles for cultural and resource control, not just discussions about whether sabre-toothed cats lived and were related to today's cats.


Holly Dunsworth said...

I can remember with fondness each and every one of those times I was shamed into changing my worldview.

Holly Dunsworth said...

(and thanks so much for reposting this!)

Holly Dunsworth said...

Also, can't wait until it's fashionable to call Native American Indians and the Amish stupid in the New York Times!

Holly Dunsworth said...

(^ refers to this: Stupid is a strategy

Unknown said...

" Lack of early evolutionary training clearly doesn't hamper later learning." I couldn't agree more. I used to believe in the creationist views of events. But what chance did I have. I was dragged to church from a young age and made to do morning prayers in school.

The funny thing is, you don't have to do a whole lot of reading to fundamentally understand the basics of Evolution. Perhaps that's the reason Creationist don't want schools teaching their kids evolution.

Anne Buchanan said...

It's true that we're all home-schooled. But we eventually leave home, and it's a big world out there!

Professor Booty said...

I'm missing your point - is Krugman guilty of these?

Holly Dunsworth said...

I think your missing my point demonstrates the greater point, at least the greater point that I take from today's post.

Holly Dunsworth said...

Welcome to the age of denial (NYTimes article)

Jim Wood said...

I grew up in the Bible Belt. The word "evolution" never appeared during my primary or secondary education. But I still remember that day in junior high (it was in shop class, believe it or not) when a friend of mine told what he had recently heard about Darwin and evolution. Nothing on mechanisms, including natural selection, just "descent with modification". And I remember being convinced immediately -- it just made so much sense out of everything I knew about the world, which admittedly wasn't much. I also remember feeling liberated in some vague intellectual way, as well as feeling pleasantly naughty for thinking thoughts that weren't really permitted. So, yes, you can be brought up as a creationist and still see the light, even at a tender age!

Ken Weiss said...

My high school biology book was by the unforgetable authors Moon, Mann, and Otto....a book sans evolution that was lampooned by Steven Jay Gould.

And then later we lived in Texas, where the book commission was dominated by the husband and wife team that intimidated everyone into purging evolution from text books, and since Texas and California dominate the market, the publishers (in their principled morality) caved.

Well, it didn't stop the truth from being discovered.

Ed Hollox said...

Very interesting post, and I generally agree. It always seems to me that too many biologists are spoiling for a fight, and the blogosphere gives us all too much opportunity for name-calling and slanging matches. Richard Dawkins is an example of this - I agree with much of what he says - but he says it so dogmatically it becomes embarrassing. Besides, Christopher Hitchens does a much better demolition job on religion.

I'm involved in teaching genetics and evolution to undergraduates, with a substantial minority (particularly on more medically-related courses) being sceptics. My attitude is that if I was teaching a degree in Geology, you wouldn't expect me to teach flat-earth theory, or even enter into a debate about it. If they choose not to believe on what I lecture, then that's up to them, as they can choose not to believe that mutations in beta-globin cause haemophilia, or Plasmodium causes malaria. Of course, they have to understand what I teach them to get a good mark in the exam, but understanding is not the same as believing. In fact, that's the point.

Ken Weiss said...

I've had the same teaching experience, at least from time to time.

Dawkins and many others don't exactly have a front-line understanding of evolution and genetics, but once established, our society dubs them 'experts' and will publish almost anything they say. Dennett, Hitchins, and many others are in the same category.

Evolution and genetics are challenging subjects with much that is not clearly understood....and who knows? perhaps we may face profoundly new ideas, facts, or factors.

If we present what we know, and why, and are honest about the fact that when we don't know something we really don't know it, we will do our students a favor.

The real fallacy, that is not pointed out by us nearly enough, is that our not knowing something about evolution does not logically imply some specific alternative hypothesis (like 'creationism')

Holly Dunsworth said...

Truths based on beliefs can be the complete opposite to truths based on science but they are just as much "truths" to the people who hold them as truths are to scientists. This means that real empathy (not just polite habit of practicing the Golden Rule) should guide how scientists deal with resistance.

Ken Weiss said...

Very well put. This is, anthropologically speaking, a cultural battle over intellectual as well as material resources.

But many of those who are thoughtful and sincere about their fundamentalist biblical religion believe that evolution is a pernicious idea of the Devil and if their child believes it and wanders away from the God's truth, s/he may be condemned to Hell for eternity.

By what right do we insist that that child should be inculcated with science? It is a very tough issue for those would take democracy seriously and who respect people with other views.

Does separating science and religion classes in school take care of the issue? Especially in publicly funded schools? Should we teach each subject as "Some people believe that...." ?

Or do we just view this as a power struggle or commercial one (where science means power and wealth), and fight to win?

Ed Hollox said...

Interesting points again. I'm not entirely convinced by Holly's cultural relativism argument, which echoes Michel Foucault's view on science as a means of social control. Of course any knowledge is power and, by definition, control but I think science makes less claims on our day-to-day life than religion. I think a key issue of scientific truth is the ability to make predictions - to quote a colleague - no one questions the nature of scientific truth at 30,000 feet.

In light of this, it's been interesting to observe the wriggling of creationists (Behe and others) after Joe Thornton's lovely paper on reconstructing ancestral ATPase subunits (Nature, a while ago). This has shown that, rather than take a "fine, but it's all designed by God" approach, these "creation scientists", by desperately trying to pick arguments, don't understand evolution. They also I suspect realise that it is true but cannot accept themselves for thinking it. To quote Mark Twain, I think they are realizing that "faith is believing what you know ain't so".

Holly Dunsworth said...

There's so much to respond to but I'll just respond to the end. I doubt very many believers have faith in much they "know ain't so." The willfully ignorant (if they exist) inside the creationism/ID movements would be, I'd bet, exceptional not normal.