Andrew Walker: Epistles of Straw

December 2001
The true tragedy of creationism
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Comment on this column A COUPLE OF weeks ago, I took part with biologist Steve Jones in a live debate on BBC Radio 3's programme "Night Waves" on the subject of creationism. The debate was scheduled in response to the news that Alabama State schools were issuing new scientific textbooks with a warning sticker claiming that evolution was a "controversial theory" that should be questioned.

A recent article in Nature has also claimed that creationism is actually on the increase globally – and apparently more than half of Americans don't believe in scientific evolution.

In the event the whole thing turned-out to be a damp squib. The programme's introduction was a recorded interview with creationist Philip Johnson. Steve and I expected him to kick off by vigorously putting the boot into evolution, but he failed to deliver, which left the poor presenter scrambling to get the debate back on track.

But even if Radio 3 had started off with a bang, it's doubtful if Steve Jones and I would have really clashed on air, for the truth of the matter is that many Christian scientists and theologians have had to come to terms with the idea of evolution. This is not only obviously true for liberal scientist/theologians like Arthur Peacocke and John Polkinghorne, but also evangelical geneticists like Sam Berry of University College, London.

Even in what we might have expected to be the heart of theological conservatism, the charismatic new churches, we find people like Roger Forster of London's Ichthus Fellowship reflecting in his book, Reason, Science and Faith, a view of science that can find room for theistic evolution without seeing it as an attack of science on the Bible.

What I believe binds together many people who would widely be considered conservative theologians and scientists, is a recognition that creationism is a basic category mistake.

C.S. Lewis led the way in the 1940s, by arguing cogently and convincingly that Genesis chapters 1 and 2 were not written as science but as myth (in the high sense – following Coleridge and George MacDonald – that Lewis used). Such a view is itself a reflection of a very early Christian tradition exemplified by St Jerome in the West and Origen in the East.

It would probably be true to say, however, that before the advent of modernity, most divines would have been more likely to hold to a pre-scientific literalism regarding the creation story; and this still holds true today for many Christian believers in the Third World as well as in enclaves of Christian sectarianism in the West.

AT PRINCETON SEMINARY in America during the early days of the last century, Protestant theologians such as B.B. Warfield and Archibald Hodge recast the Genesis creation story from a literary-historiographical account into a scientific one.

One major consequence of this was that by the time the intellectual foundations of fundamentalism were laid, with the publication of the 12 volumes of The Fundamentals (printed 1910-15), American evangelicalism had identified itself not only with a principled stance against the new "higher criticism" of biblical scholarship, but also with a radical rejection of Darwinism. Both these positions were seen to be logically connected and together they have been imprinted on evangelical memory as a major offensive in "the battle for the Bible".

However, the reality is that today's creationists are not battling for the Bible but defending a pseudo-science. The overriding paradigm to which most of them are committed is that the world is only 5-6,000 years old (based on an arithmetical or actuarial addition of all the recorded ages of people and times in the Bible).

Consequently, with the assurance that they are following "the biblical basis for science" (to quote a book title by creationist Henry Morris), creationists have launched a programme to demonstrate the newness of creation, which ranges from denying the efficacy of carbon dating, doubting (or re-interpreting) the fossil records, insisting that dinosaurs walked with humans and accumulating evidence to prove the global effects of the biblical flood.

The upshot of all this is that despite the rhetoric, creationists actually fail rigorously to engage with evolutionists because they have not got the intellectual tools to rattle their cage. In fact, did they know it (and Philip Johnson certainly has an inkling), the cage is being rattled from within: Professor Stephen Jay Gould, for example, thinks that natural selection is as much a matter of luck, random mutation, and happenstance as inexorable genetic processes.

Other scientists, such as Robert Wright, are outraged at Gould's "heresy" because they stress that the propensity for complexity that is built into living organisms leaves no room for gaps – perhaps the fear is that they will be filled by God!

There is also a long-standing debate in the philosophy of science as to whether, strictly speaking, Darwinian evolutionary theory is a science at all. Karl Popper, for most of his life at least, felt that evolution was really a "metaphysical research programme," because although he found the accumulated evidence overwhelmingly supported Darwin, he could not think of a way in which the theory could be falsified. For Popper, it is falsification rather than verification that is the logic, or the method, of scientific enquiry.

WHAT CREATIONISM HAS supremely failed to do is to nail evolution when it climbs out of its biological cage and roams into territories beyond its proper jurisdiction. It is neo-Darwinism, rather than Darwinism itself, which has let mischief loose into the world. It has been on the loose since the 19th century when the Enlightenment doctrine of progress was joined in unholy matrimony to evolution.

Once Darwin's Origin of Species was published in 1859, it was plundered by intellectuals, of right- and left-wing persuasions, to add weight to their political predilections. It was Herbert Spencer, the sociologist, for example, who first coined the phrase "the survival of the fittest" and spuriously suggested that superior civilizations and societies (he meant Western ones) were determined by those best suited intellectually and racially to rule.

On the other wing, it was Engels who took the earlier idealistic Hegelianism of Marx and spliced it together with his imperfect understanding of Darwin and created "scientific socialism," which ended up as official Soviet ideology.

Neo-Darwinism also found its way into Italian fascism – directly in the writings of Mussolini, but also in the theories of two of his most enthusiastic supporters, the sociologists Pareto and Mosca. And if this was not enough, it wandered into the Nazi ideology of miscegenation and eugenic policy which ran its course in the ovens of Auschwitz.

And I'm afraid we can't let feminist Mary Stokes off scot-free either, for although she championed contraception for women, she also wanted to tinker with the genes of the proletariat in order to weed out the weak and the wanton, the deformed and the depraved.

Neo-Darwinism is still out of its cage today: in its benign guise it continues to underpin Fabian socialism and has informed the thinking of Peter Wilson in his magnificent study of the 20th century, A Terrible Beauty. In a more strident, seemingly scientific form we can find it in Edward O. Wilson's sociobiology. And in its demonic guise a pseudo- Darwinism stalks the halls of scientific sorcery, where the gathered covens are hell-bent on putting an end to natural selection and replacing it with biotechnological cloning and genetically-engineered spare-part replacements for malfunctioning humanoids.

Instead of joining forces with the broad stream of Christian orthodoxy in order to battle with the pressing theological, scientific and ethical issues of the day, creationism is squandering its intellectual and financial resources up a Texan creek looking for the footprints of a latter-day dinosaur running side by side with early man.

That is the true tragedy of creationism.

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